Lawmakers Listening About Nursing Shortage, Need to Act
With the United States facing a "growing" nursing shortage, Abigail Trafford writes in a Washington Post "Second Opinion" column that lawmakers "suddenly" have begun to listen to what nurses are saying. Trafford points to a recent HRSA survey that found the total number of nurses has risen a "bare" 5% since 1996, down from a 14% increase between 1992 and 1996. In addition, the average age of nurses is now over 45, with the "bulk of nurses" set to retire "just as the baby boom hits Medicare age," Trafford writes. HRSA Administrator Claude Earl Fox said that the 5% increase in nurses "is not keeping up with demand," adding," This is the lowest rate of growth since we began collecting data in 1977." Still, Trafford notes that Congress has begun to hold hearings on the issue, adding that Sens. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) will soon propose the Nursing Reinvestment Act, a bill that would "bolster the nursing ranks" (Trafford, Washington Post, 2/27). Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), chair of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions aging subcommittee, also plans to introduce similar legislation (California Healthline, 2/14).
According to Trafford, the Nursing Reinvestment Act would provide funding for nursing education, establish an outreach program to attract young people into the profession and provide funding for institutions that offer advanced training for nurses (Washington Post, 2/27). The bill also would shield nurses from mandatory overtime. At a National Council of Aging meeting in January, Kerry promised to "making nursing a key health care priority" this year (Health News Daily, 1/17). And earlier this month, Jeffords said, "[W]e are facing a looming [nursing] crisis. We must take action to encourage more dedicated Americans to enter this noble profession, and to support them once they enter the workforce" (Jeffords release, 2/14). Still, Trafford dismisses educational grants and salary increases as "stopgap measures," adding that "it's going to take more than a few pennies and a Washington show of rhetoric and sympathy to turn around the country's nursing crunch."
Trafford writes that nurses face a more "fundamental problem" -- the workplace environment -- where they often "don't have the time" to provide patients with adequate care. In addition, Trafford points out that nurses, "too short-staffed, overworked and undervalued," fear making medical errors, adding, "No wonder people are bolting from the field of nursing." Trafford refers to an American Nurses Association survey of more than 7,000 nurses in which 75% of respondents reported that the quality of care in their facilities had declined over the past two years. The survey also found that more than 40% would "not feel confident" allowing family members or friends to receive treatment at their facilities, and more than 50% would not recommend the profession to children or friends. Trafford says, "All this adds up to a full-scale revolt against status quo medicine by the largest group of health professionals. Nurses have had it." She concludes, "Our health and our safety in the medical system are at stake" (Washington Post, 2/27).