By Debi Quirk
No other health-care provider spends as much time caring for patients than nurses. During their eight to 12-hour hospital shifts, they are at the patient’s beside, administering treatments, tending to their patients’ needs, and making critical decisions in their care.
In addition to providing crucial patient care, many nurses also act as strong advocates of polices to improve the health of patients and their communities, to conduct research, and to educate.
So it is fitting that each year we honor their contributions and their compassion during National Nurses Week, celebrated annually from May 6 through May 12 — the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.
It is also a good time to consider the future of the profession, which in many ways appears bleak.
In the coming decade, the demand for nurses’ services will explode as our population ages and the prevalence of chronic disease grows.
And, if the Affordable Care Act survives its Supreme Court challenge, millions of more patients will have access to care, further increasing demand for nurses.
But where will the nurses come from to meet this demand? Today, the average age of a nurse in the U.S. is nearly 50 years. Many will be retiring soon.
At the same time, cutbacks have limited enrollment in nursing schools, so there are not enough replacements in the pipeline to meet demand.
In fact, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, over the next decade demand will begin to outpace supply and by 2020 the country will be short by as many as 20,000 nurses.
The prospect is even grimmer when you consider that many practicing nurses are unhappy with their careers and often leave hospital jobs after a few years on the units.
The most common reasons they give for leaving are job stress and poor management. They complain they are being forced to work in hospitals that are understaffed. They resent mandatory overtime made necessary by hospital staff cuts. And they are concerned that they are being made responsible for overseeing care provided by inadequately trained, nonlicensed nurse assistants and hospital attendants.
These burdens are being forced on nurses by hospital administrators who, faced with reduced reimbursements from Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurers, are desperate to cut costs.
In many cases, they hope to do this by assigning more patients per nurse, and by shifting care to lower-paid nurses’ aides and medical assistants.
While such changes may cut costs over the short-term, it will likely increase costs overall by causing more medical errors, longer hospitalizations, and higher readmission rates.
The best way to control health care costs is not by cutting staff or employing unqualified workers but by improving the quality of care.
The best way to do that is by hiring, not firing, more nurses and, most importantly, harnessing their expertise to deliver services more effectively.
It is time for health-care executives, some of whom earn as much 40 times more than the nurses they oversee, to treat nurses as the professionals they are.
What would that entail?
First, nurses should be paid wages commensurate to their education and experience.
Second, they should be guaranteed working conditions and staffing levels that do not endanger patient care.
Third, they should be included in workplace decisions and given opportunities to move up into management.
And, finally, they should be given job security so they can be assured they will not be laid off the next time a “cash crunch” occurs.
If health care executives continue to focus solely on cost-cutting and ignore the value that a nurse’s education, experience, and expertise provides: nurses will continue to drift away from the profession and patient care can only suffer.
Debi Quirk has a Masters of Science in Nursing and is a nationally certified Registered Nurse who has worked for 34 years in hospital and home health care and has also taught future nurses at the university level. She currently is a private patient advocate in Seattle, Washington. She started RN Patient Advocates of Puget Sound because her passion is to empower patients to get the best health care possible.