Health systems are coming up with creative ways to address the nursing shortage —including calling in the military.
It’s no secret that the healthcare industry in Louisiana — and all over the country — has a nursing staffing problem.
This isn’t a new problem. In fact, the U.S. has experienced nursing shortages periodically since the early 1900s, with factors like economic depressions and world wars affecting the available staff. But what we’re seeing now has never been seen before. Reports suggest that around 1.2 million new registered nurses will be needed by 2030 in order to fully address the current shortage.
The need for nurses continues to grow, but the shortage keeps getting worse and worse, forcing healthcare institutions to come up with new ways to meet the challenges.
The U.S. healthcare system has been facing staggering shortages for at least a decade. From surgeons to technicians, the industry doesn’t have enough people to fill every role and has struggled to provide adequate care for patients.
But the pandemic made the problem more visible. With so much attention on healthcare in a time of crisis, and with the system under an unprecedented amount of strain, the staffing issues were laid bare — especially nursing shortages.
For many nurses, the stress of the pandemic pushed them to their breaking point, and they left their jobs for less demanding — and oftentimes better-paying — work. But there are a variety of factors contributing to the shortage. One of them is age.
“Many registered nurses who are highly experienced are part of the baby boomer generation and are looking to retire or cut back their hours,” said Missy Sparks, vice president of talent management at Ochsner Health. “Also, nursing is a demanding field, which often comes with long hours in a high-stress environment.”
Sparks said older nurses dealing with more stress than usual can contribute to higher rates of burnout, early retirements and a lot of turnover.
Nursing schools are also struggling to find nurses willing to leave a higher-paying job in order to teach students. By not being able to compete with nursing salaries, schools are limited in the number of students they can handle. The state of Louisiana has tried to help meet this challenge with things like nurse educator stipends and by reviewing faculty salary disparities, but it hasn’t been enough.
The Louisiana Health Works Commission — a legislatively created workgroup that reports the state’s healthcare workforce needs — recently reported that the state’s efforts have yielded some results, but nowhere near what is needed to meet the estimated shortage of approximately 6,000 registered nurses by 2030, a shortage of more than 40%.
As a result, it has fallen on healthcare systems to try to work with what they have and find new ways to deal with the issue.
“These challenges require creative thinking and care for the individuals who are on the job,” Sparks said.
She said fewer nurses on staff means Ochsner Health has had to be nimble, working across system teams to put people where the demand is and to adjust scheduling so that patients receive the high level of care they expect from our professionals. This year, Ochsner also launched a three-year nursing apprenticeship program for highschoolers — the first of its kind in New Orleans.
The health system partnered with the New Orleans Career Center and Delgado Community College to develop a program that provides high-school students with the opportunity to enter the nursing profession early by offering a cost-free pathway to training. Students accepted into the program will begin their 36-month training by completing coursework and clinical requirements equivalent to any other state approved licensed practical nurse programs.
In addition to the intensive healthcare and medical coursework, trainees complete a workforce development program with Ochsner known as Impact Training at Ochsner, which provides participants with hard and soft skill sets, as well as the knowledge necessary for reliable employee performance. Graduates of the program can begin working in the industry as a nurse after high school without college debt.
This spring, Ochsner and Delgado will launch the Ochsner Center for Nursing and Allied Health, a program that aims to graduate up to 1,200 nursing and allied health professionals each year. The new facility also offers classes at flexible times and on weekends for non-traditional students in order to make it easier for people to pursue a career in nursing.
Due to the exodus of older nurses, there’s also a large gap in experience and mentorship for the younger generation of nurses. Sparks said that’s why Ochsner has also put a lot of resources and money into mental health and wellness for employees, including a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help retain healthcare workers and reduce stress, fatigue and burnout.
The U.S. military also represents a large untapped resource: Historically, there’s been a “barrier of entry” that’s made it difficult for transitioning military and veteran talent to get into the local healthcare workforce. To help remove this barrier, Ochsner partnered with NextOp, a nonprofit organization that helps military members and veterans enter into the workforce when they finish their service.
“We are meeting this challenge head-on by partnering with the largest healthcare provider and largest private employer in Louisiana—Ochsner,” said Ben Armstrong, director of strategic partnerships and outreach at NextOp. “We will work together to provide candidates with access to new careers, advise on training, and provide opportunities for healthcare sector networking and career advancement. This will create pipelines for new entrants into the industry and for those with military medical experience.”
The partnership was recently awarded the Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities Initiative Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Delta Regional Authority. The $1.1 million will be used to help qualified applicants find careers in the healthcare industry.
“By jointly hiring and training a hybrid military and veteran recruiter and developing career pipelines for transitioning military healthcare professionals, underemployed veterans, and other healthcare workforce needs, we will place between 200 and 300 candidates during the three-year grant period,” Armstrong said.
These are just a few of the creative solutions health systems are coming up with to face the crisis. And while it may not be enough to fully address the problem, some healthcare professionals say the future of employment in the industry is “exciting” and innovation is leading to improvements across the board.
DID YOU KNOW? Women make up 86% of registered nurses in the United States, a number that’s actually lower than it’s been in decades as more men enter the field.