4 steps hospitals must take to address the nursing shortage

Patient and nurse in hospital
Healthcare leaders must prepare now for the growing nursing shortage so that patient care doesn’t suffer. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Industry experts have long predicted a nursing shortage, but the shortfall has already hit rural communities.

Navicent Health, a 600-bed acute care hospital in Macon, Georgia, for example, has had trouble attracting and retaining qualified staff and has a shortfall of 150 nurses. And that has left the existing staff overwhelmed as they must care for five or six acutely ill patients at a time, according to CNBC.

As Americans live longer, they also require more care, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that more baby-boomer nurses are getting ready to retire. Rural areas in particular are finding it tougher than most to attract new nurses.

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"We are seeing growing shortages in different states and geographic reasons. It's a real distribution issue that is only getting worse," Pamela Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, told CNBC. "When we talk to nurse executives and staff around the country, we hear they have difficulty recruiting, and nurses are short-staffed."

And the problem is only going to get worse, according to authors of a Health Affairs blog post, who projected that 1 million registered nurses will retire between now and 2030—taking their years of nursing experience and knowledge with them.

“Healthcare leaders must recognize that the retirement of the RN workforce has only recently begun, that it will intensify over the coming years, and that the loss of RNs with decades of experience creates multiple risks," wrote Peter Buerhaus, a professor of nursing and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University College of Nursing, along with his colleagues David Auerbach, an external adjunct faculty member, Douglas Staiger, the John French Professor in Economics in the Department of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors added that hospitals must prepare now for the shortage so that patient care doesn’t suffer. They suggested that hospital chief nursing executives, hospital patient care unit managers and human resources officers take the following steps to prevent a staffing crisis:

  • Do research to get accurate estimates of when nurses plan to retire: Find out how many plan to retire and when, they wrote, and then identify the nursing units and patient populations that will have staffing holes
  • Work with your RNs to see if they will delay retirement: Consider offering them incentives to stay at your organizations, such as decreasing their hours or offering them new roles in patient navigation or education
  • Create programs to encourage older RNs to work more closely with younger nurses: This will help them identify and teach them the skills and knowledge that less experienced RNs need, the authors noted
  • Develop a succession plan: Use this time to make sure your plans replace retiring nurse managers with RNs who are ready to take on the management of clinical and administrative duties on patient care units, they advised