Healthcare workers have been struggling to bear the weight of covid-19 for nearly two years. In early 2020 when covid-19 made its unprecedented and unwelcomed descent upon the United States, nurses, doctors, and other ancillary healthcare staff such as patient care attendants and housekeeping (to name just a few) rose to the challenge. Hospitals, urgent care centers, and clinics inundated with sick and terrified patients struggled to accommodate the masses. The pandemic has impacted all healthcare workers. Nurses comprise the greatest number of the healthcare workforce; they continue to be the primary care providers in hospitals and deliver most of the nation and the world’s long-term (nursing home), hospice, and home care.
But we, the collective nurse, are in trouble.
I have been a nurse for more than 26 years and have seen previous nursing shortages, but our current situation is the only one that has genuinely concerned me.
We are tired.
We are mentally and physically exhausted, and covid-19 has progressed through covid-20, 21, and soon to be covid-22. Most healthcare workers realize that covid is our new reality in some form, and that seems daunting.
According to LinkedIn, registered nursing is the fifth most in-demand job. Healthcare facilities are scrambling to find nurses to fill significant holes within their institutions across the nation (link to article here). Of course, the United States is not the only country to experience nursing shortages. The World Health Organization recently reported they estimate that the world will be short over 5 million nurses by 2030.
Before the pandemic, there was grave concern for nursing shortages nationwide, and the reasons for this consider many variables. First, our baby boomers are the most significant 65 and older population, and for the first time in our nation’s history, they outnumber the younger generations. This 65 plus population has increased from 41 million in 2011 to 71 million in 2019, just in time for our history’s second greatest pandemic. Statistics indicate that by 2030 this number will swell to over 73 million.
To put that in perspective, the boomers’ children, the Gen-X’ers, total just under 65 million. There are not enough Gen-Xers to care for our Boomer parents and grandparents, known as the Silent generation. This shortage has been felt harshly in long-term care centers across the nation. Some nursing homes have had to move their residents to other care facilities and close their doors, while others have had to cap admissions.
So what happens to our elderly?
Minnesota is facing its worst-ever workforce shortage for long-term care facilities (link to article here). Currently, people are leaving the workforce faster than they can hire new employees and the consequences are dire. Nurses are exhausted from fighting the pandemic while protecting their elderly patients at greatest risk from covid. Many are “beyond burned out” as they saw unprecedented suffering waiting for equipment, treatment, vaccines, and reprieve.
RETIREMENT & ACCESSION
Unfortunately, the baby boomer generation gives us more aging patients, but it also means that a significant portion of the nursing workforce is heading toward retirement. This compounds the problem; as this elder demographic leaves the nursing workforce, so does their invaluable knowledge and nursing experience. Between 2000-2018, the average age of RN’s was 45, and today the average age for a nurse is 51 (link to article here). One study predicted that more than one million RNs will retire between now and 2030.
This study did not account for an unprecedented pandemic that forced many nurses to take early retirement, most by choice.
What of the Millennials? They comprise the second-largest generation behind the baby boomers and make up half of our nation’s workforce as of 2020. Perhaps those Gen-Y’ers (Millennials) whose accession to healthcare can keep the nursing profession afloat? According to David Auerbach from the College of Nursing-Montana, a decade ago, the United States predicted a severe nursing shortage (link to article here). Instead, there was a significant influx of millennials that joined the nursing workforce. However, even with that influx, the nation will still face shortages as the baby boomers continue to retire and as the projected growth still falls short by 0.2% per capita growth across the United States. However, those numbers did not account for covid-19.
Lastly, we, the collective nurse, are sad.
The pandemic has made many healthcare workers consider other occupations. Furloughed nurses decided to tighten their budgets and never went back, and others that are currently working find themselves physically and emotionally stressed. To add further insult, 2020 brought accolades worldwide for healthcare workers, but that has changed. Nurses and physicians share stories of scorn and harassment as patients and families experience frustration from failing healthcare systems and hospital rules that vary regarding masking and visitation (link to article here). The most hurtful accusations healthcare workers face are those by grieving family members who accuse them of killing their loved one because they still do not believe covid is real.
Healthcare cannot function without skilled nurses and doctors, and the pandemic has exposed the fault lines of a fragile system teetering on despair.
Can a better understanding of the significant challenges the nursing shortage brings improve the situation? Is there a silver lining that has not yet presented itself that can help advocate for opportunities to shift the tide so that nursing can be looked upon again in a favorable light?
The healthcare worker shortage, particularly nurses, is not someone else’s problem; it is our, the collective nations’ problem; after all, who will take care of you one day?