Nurses help deliver babies, dress wounds and calm patients’ fears.
And more will be needed as the population ages. People over 65 are expected to outnumber children for the first time in the nation’s history by 2035, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, nurses are aging along with the population. About one million registered nurses are older than 50, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning one-third of the nursing workforce could be at retirement age in the next five to 10 years.
The bureau projects the need for an additional 203,700 new registered nurses every year through 2026 to replace those who will be retiring.
Match this steady stream of nurses leaving the workforce with an older populations’ need for health care professionals and a nursing shortage is born.
Less nurses on the job can lead to higher mortality rates for patients, increased infections, and career burnout for those who remain, according to research.
The mortality risk for patients is 6 percent higher on units that are understaffed by nurses than it is on fully staffed units, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
There is also a significant association between high patient-to-nurse ratios and nurse burnout, as reported in the August 2012 issue of the American Journal of Infection Control. In a study of Pennsylvania hospitals, researchers found that increasing a nurse’s patient load by just one patient was associated with higher rates of urinary tract and surgical-site infection in patients.
In order to avoid such consequences, area hospitals and nursing schools are doing what they can to stay ahead of the shortage.
“We shortened our nursing school program to 20 weeks over five semesters.” said Sandra Mesics, director of the St. Luke’s School of Nursing in Bethlehem, the oldest nursing school in the country, founded in 1884.
The school also recently hired a second full-time recruiter to visit high schools, college fairs and career fairs, Mesics said. And it added an evening-weekend track for students who have weekday jobs.
Mesics believes that if the nursing shortage worsens, more health care work will be shifted to poorly trained, non-licensed health care providers.
She sees older students who are looking to make a career change as a possible solution.
“Nursing is an excellent second career option,” she said. “I have always felt that the critical thinking skills that people acquire as they gain life experiences can help them in nursing careers.”
Mesics also sees an answer in increasing the number of minorities and men in nursing schools.
While the St. Luke’s School of Nursing is working to grow the number of African-American and Latino nursing students under a $1.5 million, four-year grant from the federal Health Resources and Service Administration, the number of male nursing students remains at St. Luke’s remains relatively low, at about 10 percent.
“Sadly, male nurses are still not well-portrayed in the media,” Mesics said. “And many young men don’t see it as a gender-appropriate career.”
The upside to the projected nursing shortage is that newly graduated RNs are finding work easily. Both the St. Luke’s and DeSales University schools of nursing report that their graduates are being hired quickly.
Indeed, the job outlook for RNs is expected to remain sunny for years to come, with job growth to rise by 15 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the 7 percent estimated growth rate across all other occupations.
Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown is continually exploring how it can improve its hiring strategies to attract new nurses.
“The average nurse today is over 45 and we are in step with the national average,” said Kim Jordan, a registered nurse who is the health network’s senior vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer. “We look at who is leaving and what we need to be hiring. Spring and December when the nursing programs graduate are big hiring times for us.”
Jordan said medical-surgical nurses – who care for people who are acutely ill or recovering from surgery – are the most difficult to recruit and retain.
However, Lehigh Valley Health Network has a nurse residency transition program that helps to attract new nurses to the hospital.
The residency program lasts one year and consists of monthly educational experiences for the newly graduated nurses along with individual mentoring.
“We don’t have all the answers yet,” Jordan said of solutions to the projected nursing shortage. “The health care industry is always changing. We are going to have to figure out how to provide care in a new way, and that may involve more outpatient care.”
“I don’t have the secret sauce,” she added. “It keeps me up at night. It comes down to this: We need talented people to take care of people.”