Madison area hospitals contend with the nursing shortage sweeping the country

Hospitals battle staffing issues as they continue to fight COVID.
The strain of the pandemic is starting to wear hospital staff thin, especially in rural hospitals.
Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 8:27 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2021 at 6:55 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - As hospitals continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and the flu season kicks into gear, staff contend with another problem: The nursing shortage sweeping hospitals across the country.

The strain of the pandemic is starting to wear hospital staff thin, especially in rural hospitals. A September study from the American Hospital Association found full-time employees in hospitals across the country dropped 4% in 2021, even as the cost for each discharged patient has risen by 14%.

The impact of the nursing shortage on Wisconsin hospitals

In Wisconsin, the state is experiencing a shortage of 2,800 nurses, according to the Wisconsin Nurses Association.

Wisconsin Center for Nursing executive director Barbra Nichols says there are three main factors behind the nursing shortage.

“The first problem is a facility shortage, there are not enough people teaching new nurses, the second problem is a shortage of long term care workers, this is preventing nurses from discharging patients who need continued care to a long term facility,” said Nichols. “The third problem is stress and burnout from covid.”

Hospitals in the Madison area feel the strain of the nursing shortage

For rural hospitals, it is even worse. A recent survey from the Chartis Group reports nearly 99% of rural hospitals surveyed are experiencing staffing shortages, and 96% report difficulty filling positions.

“In rural hospitals, you have one or two nurses who are asked to cover a wide variety of positions in those smaller hospitals,” explains Nichols.

It is an overworked industry that isn’t getting any younger.

Across the U.S., the average nurse is 50 years old. At the start of 2021, CNBC found that nearly 50% of ICU nurses left the profession in favor of retirement or other options.

And the WNA says 32,000 nurses will be headed out the door for retirement in less than ten years, which means the problem isn’t going away. Another problem facing the state is an insufficient number of students graduating to join the industry (roughly 3,000 each year) and even fewer nurses around to train the incoming nurses properly.

The impact of the nursing shortage on rural hospitals

A long-term solution is paying facility staff more to entice them to teach new nurses.

“We need to open the pipeline and get more nurses into the industry,” said WNA executive director Gina Dennik-Champion. “Better pay and benefits would entice more to that position, which would help replace the nurses we are losing.”

Unfortunately, that is a long-term solution to an immediate problem.

Chief nursing executive Veronica Scott-Fulton at SSM Health says there is no solution to the shortage in the short term. What’s in store for hospitals and nurses is a long winter.

“I think we’re in store for a long winter; some things that could help right away are employers recognizing psychical and emotional exhaustion and helping them fight that,” said Scott-Fulton.

She added that SSM Health tries to support the hospital staff by making sure they are cycled out of places like the ICU to offer an emotional and mental break. Nurses also have access to mental health specialists and programs that provide financial assistance. The hospital also works to approve extra PTO.

It is all an effort to reduce the stress nurses may experience outside the workplace in preparation for the stress met in the workplace.

And those are crucial steps as the nursing workforce in Wisconsin prepares for continued work in a pandemic without an end to the shortage. Nichols says nurses are “tired of getting pieces of chocolate when they need PPE.”

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