Opinion: We must rebuild our nursing workforce

By MARILYN STAFF

Published: 09-06-2023 9:00 AM

Marilyn Staff, RN, of N. Hampton, is Director of Care Coordination at FedPoint.

The chronic and escalating shortage of nurses that the U.S. faces moved me to write an op-ed last year laying out my top reasons why nursing is a career path that young people should consider. In that piece, I noted that my employer, FedPoint, was launching a program that awards four $5,000 merit-based scholarships annually to regional nursing students, our way of thanking those opting to be part of the solution.

And I’m happy to report that we were blown away by the caliber of our year one candidates, not just the winners, but the majority of the applicants. My generation often complains about today’s youth, but the applications we reviewed told an inspiring story of a younger demographic motivated by academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, community focus, a passion to serve, and commitment to the medical profession. Seeing this dedication is cause for celebration. But over the course of our scholarship initiative, I’ve become aware of a related shortage: training opportunities for aspiring nurses.

According to a 2022 McKinsey report, the U.S. faces a projected national shortage of as many as 450,000 nurses by 2025, owing to our aging population and COVID’s effect in accelerating nurse retirements and resignations. So it shocked me to learn that tens of thousands of prospective students each year who are lining up to become nurses are being turned down because spots for them aren’t available, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. That’s like an army on the verge of losing a war telling volunteer recruits, “we’d love to enlist you, but we lack, and aren’t prepared to invest in, the necessary resources to train you.”

The problem seems to be a combination of factors, among them a shortage of nursing school faculty (due both to retirements and the ability to earn more in clinical and private settings), and too few clinical placement opportunities.

Happily, some of our local post-secondary schools are doing something about it. I recently toured UNH’s new Health Sciences Simulation Center (HSSC). This remarkable facility allows students to respond to simulated medical situations in labs equipped with real hospital equipment, where they provide care and treatment to robotic “patients” while observed and guided by faculty in a safe learning environment. The HSSC has enabled UNH to accelerate its nursing program enrollment from 281 undergrads in 2020 to a projected 400 by fall 2024 and to nearly double its graduate nursing student population.

Elsewhere in the state, Colby-Sawyer College is expanding its School of Nursing and Health Sciences, with a new building funded in part by a $3.5 million grant from Dartmouth Health (where about 80% of Colby-Sawyer’s nursing grads land jobs). And Saint Anselm College is establishing a School of Nursing and Health Professions, bolstered by a partnership with Catholic Medical Center and a new building supported by a federal grant.

Additional federal funding for regional nursing programs recently secured by our New Hampshire delegation includes a $2 million grant to New England College to train licensed nursing assistants and registered nurses, a $2.1 million federal award to support Plymouth State’s Nursing Workforce Expansion project, and a $2.6 million Health Resources and Services Administration tuition assistance grant for UNH psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner students committed to working in rural and underserved communities. And the Educating Future Nurses Act, proposed federal legislation co-introduced by Senator Hassan, would if passed, help fund and expand clinical training opportunities for nursing graduate students through partnerships with schools, hospitals, and other settings.

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I salute those helping to turn the tide: nursing students, nursing faculty, and policymakers working to shore up our educational infrastructure to meet demand. As a reminder, nurses don’t leave hospitals because we’re expected to work hard. We leave when we feel like we’re unable to provide proper care due to impossible caseloads. Without enough nurses, care quality plunges and health outcomes deteriorate. Such scenarios cause disillusionment and burnout, as we saw during COVID. When overwhelmed nurses quit or retire it creates a vicious cycle, increasing the burden on those who remain, who in turn are that much more likely to hang up their scrubs.

Moreover, when health outcomes deteriorate, medical costs skyrocket. So if you’re worried about the national debt, taxes, the quality of healthcare, and/or the sustainability of Medicare and Medicaid, that is, if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, supporting investment in nurse training is a no-brainer.

Continuing to rebuild the nursing workforce is the only way out of the current crisis. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a matter of self-preservation.

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