The nursing bridge is about to collapse

A bridge has fallen in Minneapolis, people have died, and engineers and public works officials already are saying "I told you so." According to one estimate, engineers are aware that about 159,000 of the 590,750 bridges in the U.S. could fall down at virtually any moment.  Of course, now officials are falling over themselves to promise they'll fund future improvements, but for the victims of the Minneapolis disaster, it's a bit late.

So why do I mention this in a healthcare publication? I see the pending nursing shortage in similar terms. Here we are, as an industry, predicting massive nursing shortages over the coming years, so huge that patients are likely to be hurt or killed because of the high nurse-to-patient ratios. If we think 90,000 patients a year dying due to medical errors is unacceptable, just imagine how we'll feel when that number jumps dramatically due to lack of adequate patient supervision.

But how is our government handling things?  I don't have comprehensive numbers, but my sense is "poorly." To my knowledge, nobody's systematically investing big federal and state dollars into building new nursing schools, retaining nurses on the job or boosting their pay.

Sure, private sector organizations are stepping up with big gifts from time to time, but that won't be enough. The $100 million promised to UC Davis by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore will doubtless go a long way toward building its nursing program, but that's just one program in one state. And even in California, I doubt one school will be enough to provide the 40,000 nurses the state will need by 2014.

So let's see if we can rouse governments out of their posturing mode and into funding mode. The nursing shortage isn't just a recruiting issue, it's a crisis waiting to happen. Let's hope that in the future, we won't face mushrooming safety issues--and have to say "I told you so." - Anne