Since long before COVID-19, there has been a nursing shortage in America. I’ve witnessed it firsthand while working in recruiting for 33 years. In fact, I’ve spent the last 13 years as a career matchmaker who pairs international nurses with healthcare facilities across the country.
You might be wondering why we would need to bring nurses in from other countries to support our healthcare facilities. Well, the reasons behind the shortage are varied and vast, but four factors in particular drove the pre-pandemic nursing shortage:
1. The Nurse Population Is Aging
According to the Journal of Nursing Regulation, 40 percent of nurses are over the age of 50. By the year 2030, more than a million currently active nurses will retire.
2. Not Enough New Nurses Are Entering the Profession
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists “registered nurse” as one of the fastest-growing occupations in America. But even though the number of registered nurses is set to grow from 2.9 million to 3.4 million by 2026, it’s not enough.
As baby boomers age, the healthcare system is facing a “silver tsunami”: a massive increase in the number of elderly people needing care. For the first time in history, the oldest generation will outnumber the youngest generation. To meet demand, an additional 203,700 nurses will be needed each year over the next 10 years, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
3. Lack of Qualified Faculty
The AACN also reports that, in 2018, 75,000 nursing school applicants were turned away — not because they weren’t qualified, but because schools did not have enough faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and clinical preceptors to effectively educate them all.
4. Increasing Nurse Burnout
According to 2014 study, 17.5 percent of new nurses leave the profession within their first year on the job, and a third of new nurses leave the profession within two years.
Why are nurses leaving the field in such large numbers? Many cite a vicious cycle: Insufficient staffing leads to lower quality of patient care, which causes nurses to leave, further harming staffing levels and patient care. The problem compounds itself.
The Pandemic Is Making It Worse — and Taking Away One of Our Best Solutions
All of these problems have been in effect for years — but fast forward to May 2020. The United States has become the epicenter of a global pandemic, with well over a million diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Death tolls are rising by the thousands every day, and major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have reopened shuttered hospitals and transformed hotels and convention centers into acute care facilities for coronavirus patients.
There is such a great need for healthcare workers that some nurses and doctors have been allowed to graduate early to join the fight, and many states have called on retired nurses and doctors to return to the field.
At a time when nurses are needed more than ever, they’re also being driven out of the field: Many healthcare workers have fallen ill with the virus themselves, while others are suffering from extreme trauma and stress and actively wondering whether they should leave the profession. In fact, Indeed reported a 1000 percent increase in searches for telehealth nursing jobs, which suggests that many healthcare workers are looking for roles that will take them away from the stressful front lines.
There are willing nurses from other countries who have been preparing for years to travel to the US to help fill the gaps in our nursing workforce. Now, as the nursing shortage becomes even more acute, they find themselves shut out, stuck in the pipeline, and waiting for US immigration to resume. According to the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment, as many as 15,000 nurses are ready to travel but stuck in limbo.
Why should healthcare organizations and recruiters — and even the average American — worry about bringing foreign nurses into the country? Because these nurses could be the difference between more lives saved and more lives lost in this pandemic. Even without the current strain on resources, studies show that increasing a nurse’s workload by just one patient increases patient mortality by 7 percent.
The shortage of personal protective equipment has been a huge problem during the pandemic, but it pales in comparison to the tragedies that could arise as the nursing shortage grows even more critical. This shortage will damage the healthcare system for years to come if we don’t take steps to address it now. International nurses are by no means the only solution to this problem, but they can be a big part of the solution.