How the Nursing Shortage Negatively Impacts Patient Care

The current nursing shortage has proven to have negative impacts on patient care. 

In a landmark 2002 article by Aiken et al., researchers showed an alarming connection between high nurse-to-patient ratios, burnout, and patient mortality in hospitals.

According to David Griffiths, risk expert and SVP at NSO, a liability insurer, a nurse shortage is a breeding ground for risk.

“As shifts stretch (often last minute), fatigue becomes more of a factor, mental acuity may suffer,” he noted in a recent interview. 

“When combined with increased patient ratios, nurses have more opportunities to, inadvertently, make mistakes and injure those they serve or themselves.”

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Nurse Shortage by State Varies

Nurse shortage statistics reveal some important information. Dr. Desiree Hensel, Dean of Nursing at Curry College points to an HRSA report on The Future of Nursing that estimates that the demand for RNs will increase by 795,700 from 2,806,100 in 2014 to 3,601,800 by 2030. 

The faculty of Nursing at Georgetown University created a helpful map detailing how these differences shake out regionally and projected each nurse shortage by state.

Because the nurse shortage by state varies, Hensel says “smaller hospitals in rural areas are at risk as nurses migrate toward larger systems in wealthier cities that can pay higher wages. The National Rural Health Association estimates that as many as 700 rural hospitals may close over the next 10 years.”

For Hensel, this is a potential crisis in the nursing workforce.

“In the long run, as facilities close, nursing schools will have more difficulty meeting the workforce demands because of insufficient sites for clinical education.”

But it is not just new and potential nurses that are impacted. Alene Nitzky, R.N, Ph.D, and patient safety advocate takes issue with describing the problem as simple nurse shortage. She cites high turnover rates instead.

“The lack of experienced nurses is what contributes to an unsafe environment,” said Nitzky. “The healthcare industry has created conditions that lead to what they like to call ‘nursing shortages’ so they can blame ‘not enough nurses’ for their inadequate staffing of healthcare facilities.” 

Whatever the cause, all these experts agree that nurse shortage statistics show that nurse shortage by state varies. They also note that burnout and aging of experienced nurses has a pronounced impact on the quality of care patients receive, overall patient outcomes, and overall experiences within the healthcare system.

Travel Nurses: Helping Curb Nurse Shortages

Experienced travel nurses have the ability to make a positive impact on the nurse shortage by taking assignments at hospitals that might not have enough experienced nurses on-site, and in regions where the nursing shortage is more pronounced.

Travel nurses should be aware they’re walking into complicated labor dynamics in the healthcare industry. Nitsky encourages such nurses to tread lightly but notes that if they remain humble, they can encourage and answer questions for less experienced nurses who remain on site.

Nitzky says, “Travel nurses I have worked with in the past have been great. They all seemed to know their stuff really well and were always helpful around the unit, [even] when the established workers often had cliques or eat their young. I’d say just make the staff there glad to have you onboard so they feel they are getting a good deal (bang for the buck).”

Like all travel nursing jobs, succeeding at this challenge in a way that helps health outcomes is partly about attitude. This includes being conscious of how much you might not know as a travel nurse on a limited assignment and remembering that you’re a nurse first and a traveler second. Ultimately, it’s all about the patients.

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