This blog is Part 2 of five in a series taking a deeper dive into today’s nursing shortage crisis.
Leading up to the pandemic, healthcare systems were no stranger to the nursing shortage that had slowly been growing over the years. When COVID-19 struck hospital systems in March of 2020 the nurse staffing shortage suddenly became a problem too significant and urgent to shove under the rug. The pandemic became the catalyst for the industry to take action to overcome the staffing shortage.
The Cost of Heroism
At the onset of the pandemic, many nurses felt an extreme sense of pride, passion and patriotism towards their profession and the honor of caring for those who fell ill. Many felt they were being called to duty and embraced their experience of fulfilling the role of being a ‘healthcare hero.’ There were arduous, long work weeks where nurses worked 80 hours per week, no days off, powering through only due to the adrenaline that came with being a healthcare leader at the time. There were countless stories of nurses moving out of their own homes and away from their families in an effort to simultaneously fill the call to action and protect their families from the largely unknown pandemic.
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Not only were nurses prideful, but they were also scared – an emotion that had not previously been associated with the profession. There was a feeling (that was often a reality) that nurses’ lives were at risk – much more so than more ever before. The excitement quickly turned somber as stories of other nurses falling ill and dying from the virus spread. Nurses relied on the adrenaline, which pushed the fear to the back of their minds and enabled them to keep plowing forward.
Pushed to the Limit
As time went on, and more variants of the virus emerged, so did the toll on nurses. The reality that nurses faced became one with multi-layers of stress: from dealing with a virus that science knew very little treating to suddenly caring for 50%-100% more patients during any given shift because their colleagues were out sick or had started to resign due to the stress of it all.
According to a recent report, 1 in 5 healthcare workers quit their job during the pandemic – following suit with the ongoing Great Resignation. Nurses were overworked and overwhelmed with stress, frustration, and felt like they could not perform their job to the extent they needed to due to the system being so inundated. There were stories of nurses leaving 12-hour shifts, without a single break or meal, and still feeling like they were unable to provide adequate care to their patients who were so desperately in need of it.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Additionally, there was a major shift in contracted labor. When COVID hit, pay became a major contributing factor to the nursing shortage, due in large part by travel nursing agencies. The various travel nurse agencies that increased their cost to hospitals to the tune of an additional 67% from January 2020 to January 2022 are currently being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Many nurses heeded the call and followed the money that travel nursing promised. These nurses uprooted their permanent jobs to become “crisis nurses” and were sent to various hospitals around the country for the sole purpose of caring for COVID infected patients. In many cases, the financial reward for the risk they took and sacrifices they made was immense.
Travel nursing very quickly became extremely lucrative and therefore more appealing to nurses than remaining in their current roles. The popularity of travel nursing created a significant shift in the dynamic of many hospitals. Registered Nurses are working side-by-side with the same exact training as other travel nurses. Both are caring for the same type of patients, but the annual salary of the Registered Nurse is roughly equivalent to what the travel nurse is making in a single quarter. The travel nurse is essentially earning 4x more pay than the Registered Nurse, being paid by the same hospital, for doing the exact same work.
This discrepancy in compensation only added to the frustration that had built up in nurses during the pandemic, causing them to leave their positions – creating a further shortage of hospital-based staff, a greater demand for travel nurses and when there is an increase in demand, there is certainly a capitalistic increase in cost.
Today, the healthcare industry has reached its limit of stress. Pivotal staff members on the frontlines of care and at the leadership level have left in droves. What remains, however, is the opportunity that hospitals currently have to create positive change.
Read More about the nursing shortage and its impact on patient transfer in our eBook, Transforming the Transfer and Referral Process and Why Efficient Communications Benefit Both Patients and Providers.