The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
Nurse shortages in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country have reached critical proportions, disrupting and undermining the quality of the entire health care system.
Due to staff shortages and a lack of beds, hospital emergency rooms are overcrowded, and some patients spend days there. Overworked, stressed, and burned-out employees are more likely to make mistakes.
Jackie Strange, a UPMC nurse, said at an American Economic Liberties Project hearing in September that the staff shortage was the worst she had seen in seven years of nursing.
“Our patients don’t deserve this,” she said. “We work in one of the biggest and best hospitals in the city. We should have the resources we need to take care of our patients.”
In a recent survey, nine out of 10 Pittsburgh hospital workers said they did not have enough staff to meet their workload. More than 90% of them have considered quitting at least once a month.
The nursing shortage in western Pennsylvania reflects a nationwide nursing shortage. The stresses of the high healthcare demands caused by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic have pushed many healthcare professionals into new industries and early retirement. UPMC alone has more than 3,000 open positions for nurses. Small institutions with fewer recruitment opportunities face even more severe bottlenecks.
Meeting the demands of caregivers will not be easy. For starters, colleges and nursing schools need to train more registered nurses and licensed practical nurses by using aggressive and innovative recruitment and retention strategies.
Texas and many other states have recruited more nurses from outside the country and given them special visas to work in the United States.
Immigrants already play a huge role at all levels of the country’s healthcare system: 28% of doctors are immigrants, as are almost 20% of nurses.
Immigrants also make up 20% of laboratory technicians and almost 40% of home health workers.
In another innovative move, a Nevada nursing school is aiming to hire more male students. In 2011, only 8.9% of registered nurses were male; by 2021, that number had risen to 13%. A key cultural pivot would move more men from traditionally male-oriented occupations into health care jobs typically held by women, as more health workers are needed to meet the needs of an increasingly aging population.
But the high demand for nurses will also require higher, more competitive wages and better working conditions to attract nurses back into the labor market. Nurses across the country are protesting long shifts and a lack of resources.
More than 7,000 unionized nurses went on strike in New York City last week.
To maintain adequate health care in Pennsylvania, the state government must help recruit, train, and retain nurses.
West Virginia offers a good model.
In December 2021, Gov. Jim Justice, R. committed $48 million to alleviate the state’s nursing shortage through a series of initiatives. These include monetary incentives to relocate nurses, a state nursing grant program for nurses to work in the state after graduation, education and regulations to relieve nurses by eliminating non-nursing duties, and rewarding nursing schools that reduce the time it takes to complete degrees .
It is important to attract young people to nursing programs.
An aging caregiver population means the crisis will only deepen as people retire. The number of nurses age 65 and older has peaked, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, posing even greater challenges for increasing the number of nurses in the US.
In a survey conducted before the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services projected that the nation would need 3.6 million more registered nurses by 2030. With the Great Resignation, that number has only increased.
Pennsylvania can’t afford to lose more people like UPMC registered nurse Jackie Strange; In fact, tens of thousands more of them are needed.
Nothing is more important to Pennsylvania’s future than alleviating the nursing crisis.
It wouldn’t be possible without the help of the state government.
State governments in West Virginia and other states have enacted multi-pronged programs to increase the number of nurses in their states.
New Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro should take note.