Nursing shortage affects health care professionals, threatens to underserve growing pool of patients

Dallas resident, Paloma Orozco, 23, stands in front of Spirit Horse Harmony on Nov. 6 outside of the Health Center. Orozco works as an ICU registered nurse at Methodist Dallas Medical Center.

Working in a COVID-19 unit at a Texas hospital prepared registered nurse Paloma Orozco, a UTA alumna, for the worst. 

As the pandemic continues, Orozco worked at the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford and currently practices at the Methodist Dallas Medical Center. 

“I do have other medical staff, such as doctors and nurse practitioners, that have told us that what we’re going into is not normal,” she said. “The way that we’re providing care right now is not typical.” 

For many years, the U.S. has experienced a cyclical nursing shortage, but the pandemic has changed all aspects of the nation’s health system to meet people’s needs, said Elizabeth Merwin, College of Nursing and Health Innovation dean. 

“It’s been really, really hard on nurses and other health professionals at a time when all of society and everybody has had a lot of worries,” Merwin said.

According to Vivian Health, a health care jobs marketplace, 43% of respondents said they are considering leaving the health care profession by the end of 2021. When asked the same question last year, 80% said they would continue to work after the pandemic. 

The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences predicted Texas will need over 269,000 nurses by 2030, but the state is projected to have over 253,000.  

Stephen Love, Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council president and CEO, said the nationwide nursing shortage has also affected North Texas. Despite having excellent nursing schools and quality nurses, the North Texas population continues to increase, creating a higher demand for nurses, Love said. 

“This has been really strained even more with COVID-19 because we’ve had many people retired or left the profession,” he said. “It’s been a grueling two years dealing with COVID.” 

In April 2021, roughly 3 in 10 health care workers considered leaving their jobs, with more than half of the workers surveyed saying they felt burned out, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. About 6 in 10 workers said the stress from the pandemic has caused harm to their mental health. 

The baby-boom workforce’s vacancies along with the increased demand for nurses to serve geriatric patients first caused the shortage before she entered the nursing program, Orozco said. 

While the shortage remains, Orozco said the cause for it has changed due to nurses being overworked during the pandemic or leaving for higher paying positions. 

While permanent nurses at rural hospitals are making $1,200 per week, staffing agencies have offered travel nurses over $5,000 for a week’s salary, according to NBC News. In some cases, travel nurses get paid more than $9,000 a week. 

To provide the optimal care for their patients, Orozco said her hospital has recruited outside help such as travel nurses and those paid by the state. Being understaffed can cause an unsafe nurse-to-patient ratio. 

To prepare students for the workplace, Love says nursing schools should continue to work with hospitals to provide preceptors and teachers to work closely with students. Clinical rotations and orientations will provide students with experience before they step into the field. 

According to Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies, UTA has a total of 6,167 enrollees in the nursing program as of September 2020. The university graduated 2,681 nursing students during the 2019-2020 academic year. 

The College of Nursing and Health Innovation has graduated the highest number of nurses with a bachelor’s degree in Texas and is the largest nonprofit public nursing school in the country, Merwin said.

“The program is rigorous, and the professors have high expectations for students,” Orozco said. “I think that’s what really helps mold the nursing students into nurses that will actually be helpful in the workforce.” 

UTA continues to grow its enrollment and develop more partnerships to produce more nurses each year, Merwin said. But fulfilling clinical education requirements and finding availability throughout the health care system can be challenging. 

Pre-nursing freshman Tabitha Bonuke hopes to join the nursing major in spring 2022. Following in the footsteps of her family, many of whom work in health care, Bonuke said she pursues nursing with the passion for helping others. 

“I’m hoping that as a nurse, I’ll be able to take care of people and make them seem less of a patient, but more of a person,” Bonuke said. 

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council is coming up with innovative ways to enhance staffing, including reaching out to students outside of the Metroplex and trying to persuade them to pursue a career in health care, Love said. 

As the shortage persists, short-term solutions become exhausted, Merwin said. She expects schools to accept more students and prepare more nurses following the pandemic.  

“I suspect the nursing students who are graduating in this period of time will have their practice changed forever,” Merwin said. 

Love said he hopes as COVID-19 subsides, he can maximize the workforce. He said he works with nursing and medical schools to supplement staff and get nurses back into the workforce. 

“We’re running pretty high occupancy, and they’re getting the job done,” Love said. “It’s one of these things where we have to work at it every day to make sure we have proper staffing.” 

Bonuke heard of the nursing shortage from her dad, she feels she has a responsibility to understand the challenges of being a nurse. 

“It shows to me that nursing can be done even though it’s hard at times,” she said. “It can be done and that nurses make a difference.” 

The pandemic has introduced students to a public health crisis where they’ve learned how different individuals react and work through life as a health professional, Merwin said.

“They’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to the importance of public health in a way that I would say just has never been there in my career,” she said.

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