Hospitals in Idaho are facing a common issue across the nation – a significant shortage of nursing professionals. The Idaho Nursing Workforce Center at the Idaho Center for Nursing has compiled a report projecting an annual deficit of Registered Nurses (RNs), ranging from 106 to 523, until 2024. The COVID-19 pandemic has strained all health care sectors, exacerbating Idaho’s nursing shortage.
Additionally, a significant portion of the current nursing workforce is nearing retirement, further contributing to the shortage. Currently, 29% of Idaho’s nurses are aged 55 years or older, with 3% of them being 65 years or older. This shortage has put a strain on healthcare facilities and highlighted the need for innovative strategies to attract and retain nurses in the workforce.
According to Lauren Smith, the chief nursing officer for Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, the multifaceted nature of the nursing shortage is cyclical in nature. Historically, nursing job availability has fluctuated, with cycles of high and low demand.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find a job as a nurse because hospitals are fully staffed and the nursing schools are really great partners in getting highly educated students coming out of their programs and into the workforce,” Smith said. “Right now, we may be facing a combination of that cycle being at a low point, but I think the impacts of COVID have been really significant.”
Smith said the pandemic has created a unique set of challenges for nurses, including emotional strain and the moral dilemma of caring for seriously ill patients.
“Since the pandemic, things seem harder and scarier, and people don’t go to nursing school as much as they used to.”
An aging nursing workforce and a reduced influx of new nursing students presents a significant hurdle for health care institutions.
“When you don’t have a regular workforce to replace them, that puts another restraint on things as well,” Smith said.
To manage staffing challenges and maintain the quality of patient care, healthcare facilities have turned to hiring travel nurses. Stacy Pewe, regional vice president of Human Resources for Trinity Health said that while travel nurses are not new to the industry, it has gained more attention due to the ongoing nursing shortage.
“Sometimes we need to augment our staff with travelers to make sure that they can be resilient so they can take a day off, so that they can take a deep breath,” she added.
Saint Alphonsus has partnered with universities to support nursing programs and foster collaboration between academia and healthcare institutions. The health system also offers tuition reimbursement and upfront tuition payment options for current employees interested in pursuing nursing degrees or transitioning to higher-level roles within the healthcare field.
“Internal workforce development programs, as well as partnership with the schools is really important to us,” Pewe stated. “We have a new program that we started so our colleagues can take on higher level roles. While they continue to work, we help them and we pay for their education upfront.”
According to the American Nurses Association, nearly 18% of newly licensed registered nurses quit the profession within the first year. Similar to more advanced nurses, common causes for leaving include stressful working conditions, lack of leadership and supervision, and understaffed facilities.
Smith said one of the central concerns at Saint Alphonsus is supporting the well-being of their healthcare professionals. Efforts include providing paid time off (PTO) to help nurses recharge, ensuring they have access to mental health support, and acknowledging their essential role in patient care.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with our leaders and our nurses, looking at how we can make sure that they do get that work-life balance,” Smith said. “We work really hard to accept and honor paid time off requests when they put them in, while also working to balance the schedule.”
To enhance the well-being of nurses, a mobile unit known as the “Calling Care Team” was introduced to offer emotional support during the pandemic. This team provides counseling, massages, and refreshments to nursing staff throughout their shifts.
“It was a concept that truly resonated, and its impact persists to this day,” Pewe said.