Many of the causes of the nursing shortage stems from one fundamental problem: a lack of understanding and respect for registered nurses on the behalf of hospital decision-makers, physicians, and even the general public.
To review, the American (and worldwide) cutback on public and private insurance reimbursement rates in the 1990s steeped healthcare in hot water, and many hospital higher-ups restructured so that, theoretically, fewer registered nurses performed a greater number of tasks. Underempowered nurses were and remain unable to fight back against this manner of tyranny. The overwhelming image of nurses today—despite heroes like Florence Nightingale and Mary Breckinridge—continues to evoke a fluffy, semi-useless Caucasian woman in an adorable uniform. They are the stuff of Halloween costumes and sexual fantasies, not respected and functional members of the medical community as they ought to be.
This seemingly innocuous, if not exasperating, misconception leads to much more devastating causes of today’s nursing shortage.
Funding (or Perceived Funding) Shortage
If nurses are undervalued, it is no surprise that the National Institutes of Health budgets only 0.5% of its funds to the field. With funding in short supply, new nurses cannot be trained, and nursing schools daily turn away countless qualified and eager applicants.
There is also little pay to be doled out to those who do make it—in fact, nurse educators only earn three-fourths of what faculty in other academic disciplines earn. Whereas women—as nursing has retained, as per stereotype, a heavily female-dominant demographic—in other fields have at least cracked through the glass ceiling, nurses have made little progress over the years.
It becomes obvious that it is not funding shortage, per se, but rather a perceived funding shortage that leads to the lack of education of new nurses and short-staffing of current ones. The common view is that money simply cannot be spared on those seen as non-essential personnel. Even if hospitals with perspective want to hire more nurses, they do not have the funds—or the desire to use funds—to pay them.
Poor Work Conditions
With hospital decision-makers devaluing RNs, it is no surprise that nurses are short-staffed and expected to perform more with less. This workload causes stress and, inevitably, mistakes. Many physicians treat nurses as if they were non-essential personnel, leading to lack of respect and trust between the two and often major communication failures that can result in anything from minor annoyances to patient deaths. Add poor salaries and chronic stress to the mix and you have a handful of very unhappy nurses.
Simply because fewer nurses are on duty does not mean their actual duties go away. Without nurses to pay to perform these duties, however, the responsibility has fallen to unlicensed assistive personnel. Sometimes, these duties are not even performed.
This goes back to funding (or perceived funding) shortages. Too few nurses today receive too little training and social empowerment skills to truly excel in their field. Researchers note that formal education and more efficient and pleasant work environments make for nurses with better patient outcomes. Such expertise cannot be taught on an existing nurse shortage.
Gender and Age
Meanwhile, current (female) nurses are only aging, leaving behind few apprentices to take up after them. The world of women has grown in past decades to the point that nursing is no longer a popular occupational choice, and although men have slowly joined ranks among women in nursing, they only account for 6% of American RNs. This accounts for the shortage of individuals who even want to become nurses.
Recently, efforts toward scholarships and loan forgiveness for nurses have been made, but such will not improve the underlying cause of these shortages: the misunderstanding of an RN’s role in the medical field in general.
Since media has proved to be an effective tool in changing public and professional views on healthcare and the medical field, such must be employed to improve the general public’s understanding of nursing. In order to improve healthcare in the US and the world, the nurses must shake off their dusty image of ages past and advance with the times.
Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, where recently she's been researching different pharmacist degrees and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.