A nationwide nursing shortage has been deepened by the sputtering economy, but local observers are seeing trends that could signal a turnaround.
Hiring freezes at some hospitals are being lifted, others are reporting few job vacancies and nursing remains a popular field, especially for people seeking a second career.
Such good news, however, can’t hide the fact that nursing is a profession with a crisis, says Martina Harrison, chief nursing officer at Provident Hospital.
“My fear is that I’ll be sick and there won’t be a registered nurse caring for me,” she says. “The shortage is so big, we have to be serious.”
By 2025, some estimates predict the shortage of nurses to grow to 260,000 nationwide. In the Chicago area, there could be a shortage of nearly 11,000 nurses. Today, according to a study conducted by the Metropolitan Healthcare Council of Greater Chicago, there is a shortage of more than 9,000 nurses.
The reasons? A sluggish economy that prevents hospitals from hiring nurses and a lack of nursing school graduates to replace the flood of aging nurses who will be leaving the field in retirement. One study showed that 55 percent of nurses plan to retire between 2011 and 2020. Experts worry about the effects this shortage will have on burnout, morale and hospital economics.
When Vice President Joe Biden was in Chicago last week discussing electronic health records, he asked Cherie Hamilton, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital, for her greatest fear.
“A bad outcome, because you couldn’t get to a patient in time, because we have too many patients to take care of,” replied Hamilton.
“It scares the devil out of them because they are overloaded,” Biden said. “Instead of having two patients, they have 13 or 14 patients.”
While nurses might be overburdened, relief may not come soon. Some hospitals have slowed hiring. Loyola University Medical Center recently lifted a hiring freeze.
“The economic downturn hit us the hardest around the middle of the year, just about the time new grads were graduating,” says Paul Walden, nurse recruitment manager at Loyola University Medical Center. While a few positions are starting to open, “at this point, there are still more grads than there are jobs to be offered.”
Walden said last year he hired 115 nurses. This year he has 700 applications for 15 positions.
More training programs needed
More needs to be done to encourage people entering the nursing field, Harrison says.
A Chicago Public Schools program gives high school students a look at the medical field, while at St. Anthony Hospital, children of employees are given internships to learn about nursing and medicine.
Cook County had a short-lived medical transition program that paid for hospital workers, such as secretaries and laboratory technicians, to attend nursing school, bringing an enthusiastic crop of nurses to county hospitals.
The program lasted just one iteration, graduating about 25 nurses. It cost less than $500,000, but was cut. Harrison wishes more county workers were able to take advantage of it.
Eloise Black, a nurse at Provident Hospital who applied to the program, was a phlebotomist whose career has flourished since she became an RN in 2007.
“I just felt drawn to (patients), like I should be doing more,” she says. Interest in the program remains strong within county hospitals, she says.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, a program takes college graduates who want to enter the nursing field and trains them as RNs, then admits them to a master’s degree program. The three-year old program, initially funded by a federal grant, has been wildly successful, says Kathy Baldwin, assistant professor of nursing at UIC's School of Nursing.
“It’s impacted the shortage by allowing people who have a bachelor’s in another field to come back and quickly become nurses,” she says. The program admits about 60 students a year.
Trouble in nursing schools
It’s not that nursing isn’t a popular field. Applications to nursing schools are on the rise, up 2 percent by some estimates.
But a shortage in nursing educators led nursing schools to turn away nearly 50,000 applicants in the last year. That, in turn, leads to fewer new graduates entering the workforce, putting a strain in the diminishing number of nurses.
“Unless there are some creative ways to accommodate all these nursing students, I think that’s one of the major problems,” says Roz Lennon, chief nursing officer for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. “That’s a newer problem. The problem used to be that you couldn’t get people to want to get into nursing.”
When the economy heals, more hospitals will begin hiring nurses again, says Sue Ohlson, director of continuing studies for UIC’s School of Nursing.
That’s a good thing for patients, says Ohlson, who calls nurses “the glue of the hospital system.”
“Patients go to the hospital strictly for nursing care. They get physician care in physicians’ offices,” she says. “But the reason why physicians bring their patients to the hospital is because the patients are in the position to need someone to look after them for 24 hours.”
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.