Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Nurses Association and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast the retirement of more than half a million registered nurses by 2022. They make up just a small fraction of the more than 76 million Baby Boomers projected to retire at a rate of 10,000 a day as the incidence of chronic disease is on the uptick. To address the rapid aging of America we must grow the healthcare workforce, especially RNs, to meet the mounting health needs of all our citizens.
Unfortunately, recent reports from ECRI and in the Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing have highlighted concerns about the nursing practice environment, such as overwhelming work demands, inadequate staffing, and rising levels of burnout, further elevating concerns about a nurse workforce shortage. One solution to meet the rising demand for more nurses would be to educate more nurses. Yet, schools of nursing have been struggling with the lack of qualified nursing faculty, thus limiting the numbers of applicants who can be admitted.
One might wonder, given nurse workforce concerns before COVID-19, what will the workforce capacity be when we emerge from this ongoing healthcare crisis? Nurses on the frontline of the pandemic report feeling frustrated, lonely, and stressed by working in unfamiliar clinical settings, not going home for fear of infecting loved ones, and caring for co-workers who died. Many are haunted by the COVID-19 experience and yearning for the time they can enjoy their profession again. Will the COVID-19 nurse warriors remain in the nursing workforce post-pandemic during a time when the demand for nurses is increasing dramatically? And what will be the state of their emotional and physical wellbeing?
These questions are being addressed through a national study launched earlier this year by the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University. The Caring About Health for All Study (CHAMPS) is designed to examine the immediate emotional and physical impact of delivering care during COVID-19 and to serve as a health registry over time to understand the long-term effects on the health, lives and careers of frontline workers.
The CHAMPS Study will provide knowledge and data to enable governments, healthcare organizations, providers, and other stakeholders to understand the broad impact of COVID-19 on those delivering essential care. Ultimately, CHAMPS will inform public health strategies designed to mitigate these effects during future health emergencies and highlight the needs of those who were our champs during COVID-19—and it’s crucial that we hear from RNs, so we can better understand and meet their emergent health needs.
It’s ironic that this disaster captured the globe as the World Health Organization declared 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. What an appropriate context for nursing to ascend as an even more esteemed profession.
This moment in history offers opportunities that the nursing profession must seize. For instance faculty roles in schools of nursing must be promoted through financial support for those pursuing education to serve as highly qualified faculty. Faculty salaries must be increased to be comparable to salaries that one could earn in practice in order to recruit and retain these essential academic nurses. Financial assistance through grants, scholarships, and loan forgiveness programs (which are already being discussed) would assist qualified applicants to enter schools of nursing (once we build faculty numbers) and augment the future nursing workforce.
There are also other opportunities that need to be captured. For example, in some regions, scope of practice regulations for nurse practitioners have been expanded to meet the increased demand for care during the pandemic. These temporary enhancements to the nursing scope of practice must become permanent to increase access to healthcare. In addition, nurses need to continue to clearly demonstrate their genius to solve important issues through their inherently innovative minds and collaborative nature as they have done during the pandemic, working with engineers to develop ventilator prototypes, implementing creative and caring means for families to remain connected, and so much more.
The eyes of the world are on us. Nurses have limitless opportunities to provide leadership. Let us cohesively and inclusively use this power to not only educate but to also impact policy and practice to build positive work environments and effective and equitable health care systems in our diverse society.
Donna Havens is the Connelly Endowed Dean and Professor of the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University.