How the Nursing Shortage Affects YOU

Tips on how to help yourself, and our hardworking nurses

Guest Post by Deborah O’Leary

Nurse and Child

As the health care reform debate ebbs and flows, and then ebbs some more, you may not be thinking very much about the nursing shortage, and how it could possibly affect you.

In fact, in the current economic climate, when unemployment seems high and many hospitals seem to actually to be cutting back, you may not have realized that there was a nursing shortage at all.

You should know that, with some possible local exceptions, the current nursing shortage in the US stands at 260,000 current vacancies for RNs.

This number is expected to grow to 1.2 million by 2014 – even without a health reform plan offering expanded health care.

We are all potential consumers of health care, likely to end up in a hospital at some point, for one reason or another.

Given the above numbers, when this happens, will a registered nurse be there for us to the full extent that we need them? Or will that nurse, while well-intentioned and hard-working, be overworked and possibly overwhelmed, due to the nursing shortage and resulting nurse to patient ratios?  As a nurse myself, these questions concern me.

Our population is aging, and will require additional, and more complex, medical care.  Our nurses are aging as well – and retiring – and there are not enough educators left to train new nurses.

In fact, tens of thousands of potential nursing students are turned away from US nursing school programs annually, for this reason.  How many potential medical complications, or even “just” extra days of costly hospital care, could be avoided if hospitals increased their staff of trained and experienced RNs?

Nurses need to be a part of any continuing conversation about health care reform. In the meantime; however, the following are some tips that we can all keep in mind to empower ourselves – and our nurses – in future health care situations.

How do I get specific information about nursing vacancies in my state? Most states record details of state-wide nursing vacancy rates, but most are for previous – not current – years and it is admittedly hard for patients to find this. Online research engines are a good start.

I’m about to enter a hospital for a planned elective procedure, or just interested in getting information about the reputation of my local hospital, in case of emergency. Where do I look and what do I ask? One place to start is the hospital’s Web site. You can and should also ask primary care physician about waiting list times, infection rates (which should be published by your state’s Department of Health), and annual reports, which are typically available on the hospital’s website. Finally, a hospital will usually advertise its credentials, such as JCAHO accreditation, magnet status, and any particular rankings in specialties such as orthopedics, cardiac, and oncology.

Where can I find out information about nurse-to-patient ratios at particular hospitals? The best way is to ask the hospital directly. There are also hospital ranking lists available online that are published every year. One example is US News and Consumer Reports.

Are there questions patients or family members can ask when they are onsite at a hospital, to gauge the staffing situation there? Definitely. “Will I have the same nurse taking care of me each day?” “Is there an assigned nurse or will I have different staff for each day/shift?” “Who do I go to if I have any issues with the care my family member is receiving?” “Are there lots of temporary staff or will I be cared for by permanent staff?” And “Is there a charge nurse that I can speak to should there be an issue regarding my level of care?”

How can I help ease the nursing shortage at my hospital? Is there a person that I can contact to request that the hospital hire more nurses? Yes, you can write to the Chief Nurse Executive/Chief Nursing Officer, as this will go directly to their office and will be made an action item.

Additionally, each Hospital will have a Non Executive Board and their role will be to ensure the needs of the patient population are met. They meet regularly and are often open to the public. A letter to the non-execs is always good as it ensures that the topic has to be debated openly.

Finally, hospitals usually have a Patient Affairs/Guest Relations department that deals with patient issues/complaints, which is a good starting point for you as well.

I feel so helpless. Is there anything I can do to help change the overall situation? Yes, you can contact your Representatives in Congress and mention the W Visa, Nurse Relief Act and similar legislative proposals, which would allow for additional nurse-specific Visas per annum with a view to dealing with the shortage.

Deborah O’Leary, Operations Director for North America, HCL International Inc.

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