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How to fix the nursing shortage—and recruit the next generation of frontline heroes

June 6, 2022, 9:31 AM UTC
A nurse in California assists a COVID patient with hand exercises
The pandemic has taken an outsize toll on nurses, with one in three reporting they want to quit their jobs.
Mario Tama—Getty Images

The global pandemic has highlighted the incredible importance of medical professionals. Iconic scenes of a grateful population banging pots and pans to thank those on the front lines of a deadly disease are forever etched into our national lore.

Yet two years later, burnout and stress are taking a severe toll on the nursing field. One national survey found more than a third of nurses expect to leave the bedside in 2022. A new McKinsey analysis projects a 450,000 shortfall of nurses available for direct patient care by 2025.

It will take more than words to reverse this concerning trend. Here are three steps public and private stakeholders can take to provide today’s nurses with the support they need, while also recruiting the next generation of care professionals.

Nurses should receive higher wages

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for registered nurses was $77,600 in 2021, while compensation for hospital CEOs in 2018 ranged from $274,300 to $1,409,500. 

Hospitals and health care systems should review their priorities. Commonsense belt-tightening measures, including automating manual tasks and renegotiating bulk-purchase agreements, would lead to meaningful savings that could be used to increase nursing pay.

In this era of soaring income inequality, executive compensation, bonus packages, and shareholder dividends should also be on the table.

Some health systems are making progress on this front, notably in Vermont and Illinois. Government has a role to play too, but efforts to raise health care wages through federal legislation have stalled in Washington. Fortunately, some states are taking the initiative. For example, last year Montana increased entry-level nurse wages by 17%.

Workforce safety needs an overhaul

The recent trial of RaDonda Vaught, the former Tennessee nurse who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for mistakenly injecting the wrong drug into a patient, is having a chilling effect on the profession.

This single case sets a dangerous precedent and will reverse the decades we’ve invested in building High-Reliability Organizations within health care, where reporting of errors and near-misses is encouraged to uncover system weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.

Such mistakes don’t occur in isolation. There are always multiple contributing causes within the system, which can be prevented with better safeguards.

Nurse-to-patient ratios must be reduced and regulated to meet the needs of an increasing majority of hospitalized patients who present with multiple diseases and require complex care. Shift flexibility, including moving away from the standard eight- and 12-hour shifts, will also help nurses better balance their lives.

The pandemic has accelerated the reshaping of many “normal” workplace customs, ushering in more hybrid and remote work for many white-collar industries. Nurses should have the same opportunities to restructure their schedules.

There are also safety concerns with repeated 12-hour shifts, which drive burnout and can increase the odds of tragic situations such as Vaught’s. Finally, the process of hand-offs between shifts must be streamlined to reduce communication errors and protect the safety of both patients and nurses.

We need to overhaul nurse recruiting and professional development

Nursing is an industry with incredible potential for career growth. Clever marketing can help cultivate this appeal—and usher in the workforce of tomorrow.

Many of the most successful nurses started as certified nursing assistants (CNA) or home health aides, assisting patients with the activities of daily living before advancing up the ladder to more rewarding and lucrative opportunities in the health care system.

My journey began as a CNA when I was a sophomore in high school. I worked as a CNA until my third year of nursing school. Along the way, I gained invaluable life skills, discovered my passion for health care, and strengthened my application to nursing schools.

Employee-friendly companies such as Target market their career opportunities as stepping-stones. Nursing should too. The promise of real growth can make entry-level positions that come with less desirable tasks more attractive.

Nursing is physically demanding, and not everyone wants to stay in such a role for an entire career. Would-be nurses need to see that the path can take them to administrative, research, or policy and advocacy roles. Instead of dreading anytime a nurse leaves a bedside position, employers need to embrace a growth mindset for their teams.

Even as the pandemic recedes and life resumes, our gratitude toward nurses must not wane. Nurses are always there for us when we need them most. It’s our turn to repay the favor.

Pritma Chattha, DNP, MHA, RN, is the VP of health care innovation at Apploi and a board member of the Innovation Advisory Council at the American Nurses Association.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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