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Health executives are concerned about worker shortages, trying both carrot and stick approaches to meet staffing needs.

Monument Health of South Dakota has offered as much as a $40,000 sign on bonus for experienced surgical and ICU nurses.

Some ICU nurses have been offered as much as $10,000 a week to travel between various hospitals, and health systems nationwide have offered raises to workers.

Yet, we still are seeing staffing shortages across the U.S., and some states have deployed the National Guard to help meet needs.

ThedaCare of Wisconsin took another approach, filing for a temporary injunction in an effort to retain employees. Because a majority of its radiology and cardiovascular team accepted positions with another health care system, ThedaCare is making the case to the courts that their immediate departures would endanger stroke and trauma patients who need specialty services.

In my household, we feel the pinch of the worker shortage.

My wife is the director of nursing for an acute rehabilitation unit. A week does not go by that she does not get called in the middle of the night asking for her help, and she frequently picks up extra shifts to fill a gap.

I’ve experienced similar circumstances as the senior staff chaplain at my hospital. The growing health care staffing shortage has caused both of us to miss family birthday dinners, kids sporting events and holidays.

A few years ago, we even canceled dinner reservations and ended up working a death together in the ICU on our wedding anniversary. There’s nothing like toasting another year together with bad hospital coffee at 3 a.m.

I could go on, but here is the point: The pandemic has exacerbated, and added to, the challenges health care workers were already facing, but this is nothing new.

There are countless mothers, fathers and couples who are nurses, therapists, techs, administrators and chaplains who are dedicated to taking care of patients and their communities.

There are just not enough of us, especially at the bedside, and many workers cannot keep up the current pace necessary to meet the demands.

The U.S. has had a nursing and health care worker shortage for over a decade. It is a trend that the nation is finally paying attention to as a result of the global health crisis.

The rate of retirement, nurses leaving the profession and the expansion of health care needs is expected to create 194,500 open positions annually, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, and a 2017 study projected that the U.S. could face a registered nurse shortage of over 500,000 by 2030.

What can be done about this growing shortage?

We need to stop “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by tempting nurses to jump from one health care system to another with bonuses and short-term pay. Instead, we must find a way to train and retain more nurses while improving working conditions.

A good place to start is nursing schools.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported in April 2021 that baccalaureate and graduate degree programs in the U.S. saw a 5.6% annual enrollment increase from 2020 to 2021.

While this is positive, U.S. nursing programs are also turning away over 80,000 qualified applicants a year, due to lack of faculty, clinical sites and financing. In addition, around a third of current nursing faculty are expected to retire by 2025, thus compounding the problem.

The number of nurses leaving the workforce has risen from 40,000 a year in 2010 to around 80,000 in 2020, so it is essential that nursing programs are able to enroll all qualified applicants.

Of course, retention is as important as increasing enrollment and graduation rates.

In 2018, Emory University analyzed Department of Health and Human Services data for 418,769 nurses who left their jobs.

“Of those nurses, 31.5% reported burnout as a reason for leaving their position, making it the third most commonly cited factor,” the report said. “Other top reasons for leaving included a stressful work environment, lack of good management or leadership, inadequate staffing, and finding better pay/benefits elsewhere.”

We need to call on the leaders of U.S. health care systems to focus more upon stress reduction and the emotional care of staff. Effective ways of doing this are investments in employee assistance programs, support staff, engaged leadership and pastoral services.

It is time to stop looking at our current health crisis as only a COVID-19 problem.

Certainly, the pandemic has made the situation worse and more pressing, but the storm has been brewing for over a decade. Hopefully, the nation is finally able to see the urgency.

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