Nurses are foundational to American health care. Without them, the entire system would quickly collapse.
Yet, population health is in danger due to the perennial nursing shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While nursing shortages have existed as long as there have been nurses, the current crisis is greater than ever.
Current Nursing Shortage Statistics
Although there are many reasons for the nursing shortage (as we will see in a moment), the COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact.
Before the pandemic, the number of new nursing licenses grew at around four percent per year. However, in 2020, the growth rate slowed to about one percent due to the pandemic’s effect.
Not only that, but according to a McKinsey survey, nurses are planning to leave the workforce at higher rates compared to the previous decade.
Twenty-nine percent of responding RNs in the United States said they were likely to leave their current role in direct patient care, and many expressed their intent to leave the profession altogether.
RevcycleIntelligence, citing a report from Incredible Health, a nursing job placement agency, examining the nurse staffing shortage, said that over a third of nurses plan to quit their current position by the end of 2022, attributing burnout, stressful work environments, and inadequate compensation as reasons. Between June and September 2020, more than 75 percent of health care workers described experiencing stress, anxiety, frustration, and burnout.
Unless the health care industry takes radical measures to stem the outgoing tide, the outlook won’t improve.
McKinsey says the United States may have a shortage of between 200,000 and 450,000 nurses available for direct patient care (a 10 to 20 percent gap). To put it in perspective, the nursing shortage worsens by around 30,000 for every percentage point of nurses who leave direct patient care.
The United States would need to double the number of new nursing school graduates who enter and stay in the workforce every year for the next three years to offset the shortage.
Reasons for Today’s Nursing Shortage
The pandemic is not the only reason for the shortage. The litany is long—several are no different from those we included in a 2016 blog post—and consists of a lack of educational opportunities, an aging workforce, and an older population requiring increased patient care. Nurses responding to the McKinsey survey also cited staffing, pay, insufficient support, and discrimination as factors affecting their decision to leave.
Lack of Educational Opportunity
In 2020, more than 80,000 qualified applicants were denied acceptance at nursing schools, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Evidence suggests three major obstacles prevent colleges from educating more nurses:
- Nursing educator shortfall, including college faculty, clinical instructors, and preceptors.
- Lack of clinical placements for student nurses, where students get the practical experience required for graduation and licensure.
- Inadequate campus facilities and equipment, such as nursing labs and simulation technology.
Career site Zippia estimates that 55 percent of registered nurses are over 50 and that 4.7 million nurses expect to retire by 2030.
The industry anticipates greater demand for nurses due to COVID-19’s prevalence, long COVID, and chronic conditions in an aging population. According to McKinsey, the number of inpatient hospitalization days will rise from 1 to 12 percent in 2025 compared to the same number in 2019.
Nursing Shortage Effect on Patient Care
The pandemic provided profuse evidence that overworked nurses suffered from fatigue and burnout, affecting their ability to provide effective patient care and potentially leading to medical errors.
A lack of nurse availability can also affect patient satisfaction. The British Medical Journal, reporting on a study, revealed negative patient perceptions of nursing care relating to missed care. Patients can also lose confidence in their care when RNs are too busy to explain medications or coordinate care with other team members.
How to Solve the Nursing Shortage
There are no quick fixes to this crisis, but solutions do exist. Nurses responding to the McKinsey Frontline Workforce Survey in March 2022 listed a more manageable workload, higher total compensation, the ability to take time off, and feeling more appreciated by an organization as crucial factors to take into account when evaluating a return.
The research offered several steps that hospital executives, organizations, and governments can take to alleviate the nursing shortage.
Promote Interest in Nursing
To boost the number of recent graduates entering the workforce, hospitals and health systems need to present nursing as a desirable and exciting career option and make more people aware of how to succeed in the field.
SCP Health opens countless opportunities for you to find the position that best aligns with your passion. View all our available clinical nurse practitioner careers at SCP Health here.
Increase the Number of Academic and Clinical Spots
Higher education institutions must increase funding, and health care organizations must find ways to support training while managing personnel shortages.
Additionally, regulators should consider giving more latitude in accreditation programs and prompt completion of licensing procedures. However, progress may hinge on fostering more favorable conditions for nurse educators, a profession historically beset by shortages.
Use Innovative Health Care Delivery Models
New care delivery models could help address the shortage by lightening the nurses’ workload and optimizing their time and energy. McKinsey also suggested that health care providers may use analytics and artificial intelligence to increase the effectiveness of workforce planning.
Related Resource: Artificial Intelligence and Dynamic Staffing
Governments Need to Buy In
Federal and state governments must take action to address the shortfall. Governments could create financial incentives for practicing and aspiring nurses, such as tuition reimbursement, student loan cancellation, or additional funding. They could also launch educational campaigns highlighting the benefits of a nursing career.
In addition, hospitals and health systems must work hard to attract and keep qualified nurses by nurturing an environment that values them, allows for flexible scheduling, provides growth opportunities, and gives nurses a more prominent voice in the system.
Future of Nursing Outlook
Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow nine percent from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—about average for all professions.
More nurses will be needed in practice areas such as telehealth, home health, long-term care and rehabilitation, and outpatient care centers to address the pandemic’s impact and the older patient population’s demand on the health care system.
Daily Nurse, a nursing careers publication, identified other trends we can expect to see in 2022 and beyond.
More Online Education
The pandemic accelerated growth in online education, including distance learning for RN-to-BSN bridge programs. That expansion should continue.
Demand for Training and Higher Education
More nurses are seeking bachelor’s degrees (or higher) than associate degrees to meet the growing demand.
With the number of nurses leaving bedside care in the next few years, travel nurses will continue to be in demand.
The pandemic drastically impacted a health care system already in crisis—one that can’t continue without nurses. Hospitals, health systems, and government (state and federal) must join forces to counteract the pandemic and other negative catalysts on nurse attrition, find ways to attract more people to the field, and increase existing workforce retention.