It’s no secret that there’s a lack of nurses in healthcare systems nationwide. A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine predicted a significant shortage of registered nurses to occur by 2030. But its true causes—and potential negative effects—aren’t as well understood.
Why is There a Nursing Shortage?
Staffing shortages aren’t exactly unique to nursing—since 2020, almost 100 million people left their jobs, and 2.4 million more Americans than anticipated retired during the pandemic. But with pre-COVID projections indicating 1 million nurses would retire between 2017 and 2030, the problem is particularly acute in healthcare, especially when you consider the stakes couldn’t be higher. Adequate staffing can literally be the difference between life or death.
In short, nursing schools are not producing enough graduates to offset increasing retirements and other employee turnover in the workforce. At its core, it’s an issue of simple supply and demand, although its myriad causes and complex solution are anything but.
According to Medical Solutions’ 2023 Voices of Care survey, the primary factors causing permanent nurses to leave the profession are retirement, feeling undervalued or unsupported by their organization, the pursuit of better financial opportunities, loss of career fulfillment, and job-related mental health issues such as stress or burnout. Only 44 percent of survey respondents were satisfied with their job, and 39 percent said they were paid fairly and were recognized for their hard work.
Why the U.S. Nursing Shortage Keeps Getting Worse
To address these concerns, healthcare providers and staffing agencies have adopted new strategies for recruiting and retaining nurses. Foremost among these are better compensation, streamlined hiring processes, improved work-life balance, more hands-on orientation and onboarding programs, and continuing education/professional development opportunities.
So, if demand is high and nursing jobs are better than ever before, the nursing shortage must be ending, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Although better compensation and benefits packages have helped address certain aspects of the nursing shortage, some fundamental problems remain.
For example, because facilities are so short-staffed, nurses are being asked to do more to try to compensate for unfilled positions. That means working longer hours, taking more shifts, and making do with smaller teams. As a result, this causes greater stress and burnout—contributing to even more turnover as overworked nurses continue to leave the profession—not to mention poorer performance.
To help slow this vicious cycle, some healthcare organizations are implementing international healthcare staffing strategies to expand their talent pools, but even that presents only a short-term solution. Until we can solve the fundamental problem of producing more qualified nurses to fill a shrinking talent pool—and keeping the ones who are currently available—we will continue to experience the negative effects of the nursing shortage.
Effects of the Nursing Shortage
Many throughout the industry recognize and understand the immediate financial consequences of these shortages. However, there is a deeper and more alarming negative outcome—the impact on patient care and overall consumer safety. Put simply, nursing shortages can be dangerous and pose significant risks to patients and healthcare facilities.
Patient Outcomes and Safety
Nursing shortages directly affect patient care and safety, leading to increased risks and compromised quality of care. Lower nurse-to-patient ratios can lead to negative outcomes, including medication errors, hospital-acquired infections, and patient falls.
When nurses are spread thin, they are more likely to experience fatigue, leading to a decline in attention to detail and increased potential for errors. These lapses in safety not only harm patients, but they can also contribute to the overall burden on healthcare systems by unnecessarily prolonging hospital stays.
Long-Term Health Implications
Beyond the immediate risk, nursing shortages can have long-term health implications for patients. Insufficient staffing levels mean less time spent with each patient, resulting in reduced monitoring and follow-up care.
Adequate nursing care plays a vital role in detecting early warning signs, ensuring smooth recoveries, preventing complications, and providing timely interventions. Without this essential care, patients may experience delays in diagnosis, treatment, and overall recovery, ultimately impacting their long-term health.
Increased Hospital Readmissions
Nursing shortages also can result in higher rates of hospital readmissions, placing additional strain on both patients and healthcare facilities. When nursing staff levels are insufficient, patients are more likely to experience inadequate discharge planning, care coordination, and education about self-care.
These factors contribute to a higher likelihood of complications post-discharge, which can lead to preventable readmissions. Such readmissions not only negatively impact the healthcare system, but they also can create financial burdens for patients and their families.
The consequences of nursing shortages extend beyond the realm of patient care. They can also have a broader economic impact. The increased demand for healthcare services, coupled with a limited nursing workforce, places a substantial strain on healthcare budgets.
Hospitals often hire travelers to fill temporary gaps in staffing, which is a great option in terms of flexibility. However, this isn’t always the most affordable long-term staffing solution. It can create additional expenses that lead to increased healthcare costs for patients, providers, and insurers alike.
Nursing Shortage Solutions
Addressing nursing shortages requires a collective effort involving policymakers, healthcare organizations, and educational institutions. To solve it, we must prioritize and invest in our nursing workforce to secure its future and ensure the highest quality of care. Here’s what you can do on a facility level to help stabilize the shortage of nurses.
Invest in Your Talent
According to the 2023 Voices of Care survey, 83 percent of permanent nurses who were planning to leave the profession said they would consider staying if they were offered a salary increase, and 45 percent said they would reconsider if additional staff were hired to help reduce workloads. Nurses want to feel valued and respected, both in terms of their compensation and the amount of work they’re asked to do. By paying them more and giving them a better work-life balance, we can help reduce turnover.
Provide Growth Opportunities
Nurses want to grow their careers just like everyone else. To support your team’s continuing education, consider providing scholarships for team members to pursue more advanced degrees or certifications. Promoting mentorship and offering professional development opportunities can be great ways to motivate and reward your employees while also helping them grow into new roles, which can help increase job fulfillment and reduce burnout.
Improve Work Environment and Conditions
As suggested earlier, the simplest way to improve work conditions for overburdened employees is to pay them more and hire additional staff. But there are other methods for creating a positive work environment that can motivate employees to perform at their highest level.
First, prioritize culture and ensure you’re displaying and reinforcing the behaviors you want to see. Also, address any lack of support or employee frustrations. Make sure your teams have the necessary tools and materials for them to operate effectively. This can include everything from providing up-to-date technology to making available counseling and other mental health resources.
Solving the nursing shortage is a tall order, and it requires the effective execution of both short- and long-term strategies. To accomplish this, you need a true partner who can work closely with your organization to ensure you’re meeting your staffing needs. Schedule a demo or contact us to learn more. We’d love to show you how we’re revolutionizing the way healthcare professionals and facilities come together for work.
Matchwell, now part of the Medical Solutions healthcare talent ecosystem, is an agency alternative that matches clinicians with top healthcare facilities looking for local and per diem talent. Start a conversation today!