May 11, 2021

Understanding the Growing Nursing Shortage Problem in the United States

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Content by: JBrigham

The demand for nurses in the healthcare industry today is staggering — an issue that reached a critical point last year. As early as 2009, studies had estimated a shortage of 1 million nurses for the year 2020, and the pandemic only exacerbated the issue.

With the entire healthcare system more compromised than ever, the shortage of nurses, who serve as patient advocates, essential members of the medical team, and support systems for families, is even more prominent. Understanding what led to the shortage and how it can be overcome is paramount to public health and recovery.

Why is the Nursing Shortage Growing?
COVID-19 aside, there are other reasons why the healthcare industry is lacking so many registered nurses (RNs).

The Natural Course of Aging
The first issue in the nursing shortage deals with age as both the general population and the workforce are reaching their golden years. In the next decade, a fifth of the population will be senior citizens. Unfortunately, the same goes for the very RNs caring for these patients, as a third of the nursing workforce is composed of professionals aged 50 years and up.

Add these realities to the limited supply of new nurses trickling into hospitals, and the shortage becomes even more pronounced.

Bottlenecks in Education
Despite a promising career with job security, good compensation, and fulfilling work, there just aren’t enough nurses in the field today. The main bottlenecks in nursing schools are limitations on budget, faculty, staff, and other resources. The already limited number of teachers are looking to retire in the next decade, too, and filling these positions is challenging as teachers are required to have higher educational attainment and more experience, but earn less than their counterparts in the field.

Clinical sites for training are also scarce, with nursing students struggling to find the practical experience required for actual hospital settings. Even with theoretical knowledge and hypothetical solutions, there is no substitute for real-time experience in the field.

Solutions to the Nursing Shortage
While not much can be done about the aging population, both for nursing staff and patients, focusing on the new generation of nurses is the best way to grow their presence in the healthcare industry.

Funding
Without funding, educational opportunities will not grow enough for the number of new nurses required to enter the workforce in the coming years. Universities should assess their programs and craft new incentives, while the federal government should work to increase Title VIII funding. Considering grants will also attract nursing talent from a larger pool.

Online Programs
The low number of nurses entering the healthcare industry is not a case of waning interest in the field — in fact, it's quite the contrary. Studies have found that the current generation is twice as likely to choose nursing as a profession compared to baby-boomers.

Faced with the constraints mentioned above, colleges and universities had begun shifting to online learning platforms even before the pandemic to provide education to more aspiring nurses across the country and meet growing industry demand. Online programs have opened doors for new Licensed Nurse Practitioners to enter the field, while more advanced online RN to BSN programs allow RNs to further their expertise and earn higher-level degrees, which many health institutions require. In fact, the Institute of Medicine has called for 80% of nurses to hold a BSN degree by this year, and distance learning programs have become even more crucial for this endeavor in light of the current pandemic. While online learning mostly boomed because of the pandemic, it's likely an option that is here to stay to provide opportunities to even more nursing students in the future, thus addressing the existing gap.

Training Opportunities
Technology can provide hands-on training opportunities for aspiring RNs in lieu of real-life exposure. By testing each student’s ability to make stressful medical decisions in real-time using simulation mannequins and virtual reality, educators are providing them with the necessary training through alternative means to equip them for the rigors of medical care. It’s also an excellent way for nursing students to learn without putting real lives at risk due to inexperience. However, clinical rotations should also be increased for the exposure of up-and-coming nurses, where possible.

A Brighter Future Ahead
As the healthcare industry, education institutions, and government bodies work to address the nursing shortage in the country, many opportunities present themselves. Opening the door of opportunity a little wider to address a growing need will not only bring in the best talent, but also professionals from different backgrounds who can move the industry toward better patient care.

About the Author
An aspiring RN herself and currently in her final year of study, JBrigham combines her love for writing with her medical expertise through articles on healthcare and medicine. When she isn't studying or writing, she experiments with different coffee brews and spends time with her dog, Rambo.

Image Credit - Pexels

Posted in: Public Health & Environmental Medicine
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