Causes, Consequences, and Potential Solutions
From ICUs to maternity wards and everywhere in between, registered nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system, with nearly 4.2 million registered nurses working nationwide. However, the need for nurses is rapidly outpacing the number of new nurses entering the workforce across the U.S. and throughout the world. Recent projections from the Department of Labor estimate the U.S. will need around 275,000 new nurses every year from now until 2030.
And it’s not just that the demand for healthcare is increasing—overworked and underappreciated nurses are hitting their breaking point. Research from Zippia shows 95% of nurses have reported feeling burnt out in the past three years, with an average turnover rate of over 27%. Frequently described as The Great Resignation, the post-pandemic increase in people quitting their jobs has hit the nursing industry at least as hard as any other career field—as many as 30% of all U.S. nurses quit their jobs in 2021.
It’s one thing to be understaffed at an office job or production facility and push back deadlines or readjust expectations. But when RNs are handing in their resignations faster than healthcare facilities can hire new nurses, the consequences can be dire. Hospital understaffing has been linked to increased patient mortality and higher instances of preventable incidents.
So how do we solve the nursing shortage? It’s a big question. Let’s take a deeper look at the contributing factors and potential solutions.
Causes of the Nursing Shortage
Why Is There a Nursing Shortage?
Several interconnected factors have led to the current nursing shortage crisis. Let’s examine a few of the most important ones:
Many nurses will retire in the next 10 years
The average age of RNs in the United States is 52 years old, meaning that many nurses are nearing retirement. Over 1 million current registered nurses are estimated to leave the field by 2030, further exacerbating the need for new nurses entering the profession.
Nurses are burning out and quitting their jobs
As many as 34% of nurses plan to turn in their resignation in the next year, and burnout is the #1 most commonly cited reason—specifically, burnout due to low staffing. Over 80% of nurses say inadequate staffing is the main reason they feel burnt out. And when nurses leave already-understaffed healthcare facilities, it continues the cycle of burnout that’s contributing to the nursing shortage.
The COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented demands on nurses
The WHO estimates that as many as 180,000 healthcare workers worldwide could have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, as many as one in three deaths were nurses and other healthcare workers. And those figures don’t include the emotional and psychological toll caused by a global health crisis. While just 15% of nurses reported feeling burned out in 2019, that number jumped to 62% since the start of the pandemic.
Many qualified students are unable to access nursing school
It’s estimated that over 90,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools in 2021, primarily due to a lack of nursing faculty, inadequate clinical sites or classroom space, or a lack of experienced preceptors. Students recognize that nursing skills are in demand, but educational institutions must be able to keep up!
When you add it all up from a large number of nurses set to retire to bottlenecks in nursing schools, it’s easy to see why there is a nationwide nursing shortage.
The Impact of the Nursing Shortage
An understaffed healthcare facility can have potentially dangerous issues, especially when its nursing core is understaffed and who do everything from administration work to patient care nurses. Below are some of the impacts of the nursing shortage.
Nursing shortages negatively affect patient outcomes.
Despite the best efforts of hardworking nurses, hospitals with staffing shortages are simply unable to deliver the same standard of care. Research shows nursing shortages lead to more medication errors, longer wait times, increased morbidity, and increased preventable incidents.
Nursing shortages are costly for healthcare organizations.
According to the 2022 NSI National Healthcare Retention & RN Staffing Report, staffing shortages cost the average hospital $7.1 million. When hospitals can’t find enough bedside nurses, they’re forced to hire travel nurses at a premium, potentially deterring them from investing in longer-term solutions.
Nursing shortages perpetuate nurse burnout.
In a particularly cruel example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, understaffed healthcare facilities place unsustainable demands on their RNs. This causes nurses to burn out, quit their jobs, and exacerbate the problem by putting more responsibility on the already-overworked nurses who remain. When nurses cited excessive workloads as their #1 reason for quitting, that means it’s time to find a solution.
Nursing Shortage Solutions
What Are Some Solutions to the Nursing Shortage Crisis?
Solving the shortage of healthcare workers is a complex task. It will take coordinated efforts on multiple fronts, from healthcare organizations and policymakers to educational institutions and advocacy groups. Let’s explore some approaches we can take to set current and future nurses up for success.
The Role of Nursing Schools and Universities
To meet the growing demand for nurses, institutions must increase access to nursing programs while maintaining the quality of education required to train effective RNs. This may involve securing additional financial aid funding, adding nursing program seats and start dates, or even opening new campuses. Schools offering flexible hybrid programs can help busy adults earn their BSN while working full-time jobs or allow students taking a full course load to complete their degrees faster than the traditional four-year college model.
By making nursing education more accessible to everyone, especially first-generation college students and under-served groups, we can broaden the pool of qualified applicants and address the nursing shortage while promoting social and economic equity.
The Role of Nursing Organizations and Advocacy Groups
Nursing organizations and advocacy groups like the American Nurses Association and the International Council of Nurses are essential in addressing nurse burnout and the nursing shortage, as they amplify the voices of millions of individuals. Advocacy organizations lobby international, national, and local policymakers in favor of legislation that enables nurses to treat patients more safely and effectively. Their work is vital in securing funding for nursing education and other public health initiatives, keeping regulatory policies in line with nurses’ needs, and improving working conditions worldwide.
The Role of Healthcare Organizations and Policymakers
To keep up with the skyrocketing demand for nurses, some healthcare systems are embracing non-traditional training methods, like educational partnerships and incentives to upskill current allied health workers into RNs. In addition, healthcare employers can retain experienced nurses by offering career development opportunities to existing staff. Research from Gallup shows career development opportunities are one of the top drivers of employee engagement for all workers. Finally, healthcare organizations should re-evaluate nursing salaries and benefits to stay competitive in a hot job market.
Healthcare organizations can also address one of the root causes of nursing burnout by establishing policies regarding nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. In addition to providing better patient care, well-staffed healthcare facilities enjoy lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction. In many cases, increased nurse staffing actually saves money for a healthcare facility over the long run due to the high cost of turnover for nurses.
As for policymakers, they must renew their focus on funding nursing education through grants, scholarships, and other initiatives if we hope to find a lasting solution to the nursing shortage. Politicians and regulatory officials should also consider other laws mandating nurse-to-patient staffing ratios at the state or federal levels. Currently, only Massachusetts and California have state laws requiring specific staffing ratios for healthcare systems, meaning many nurses are being pushed to their limit—often to the detriment of the patients they treat.
The Role of Individual Nurses
Nurses and nursing students can make a difference in the nursing shortage by joining and actively participating in advocacy organizations. By adding your voice to thousands (or millions) of others, you can support policies that lead to safer, more sustainable working conditions, less burnout, and compassion fatigue, and ultimately better patient care.
It’s also important for nurses to prioritize their self-care, especially when their jobs are as demanding as ever. Making time for meditation, exercise, and fulfilling relationships can help nurses maintain their overall well-being while weathering the storm of the current staffing shortage.
Solving the nursing shortage isn’t something that can happen overnight. Still, we must prioritize it to avoid serious long-term consequences for our healthcare systems and the quality of patient care worldwide. By addressing nurse burnout, improving education funding, and making nursing schools more accessible, we can keep up with the rapidly growing demand for nurses and other healthcare workers.
The hybrid BSN program at Provo College makes it possible to earn your degree and become an RN in as little as 36 months—without the waitlists you’ll find at many nursing schools. You’ll receive an accredited education from experienced nurses and utilize industry-leading training technologies to build the clinical skills and judgment you need to thrive in your new career.