WA nurse staffing shortages ‘could be more of a crisis than COVID’

Washington

In a recent survey, Washington hospitals said they had 6,100 vacant nursing positions

Andre Mattus, right, a nurse at the University of Washington Medical Center, gives the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Amar Gunderson, 6 1/2, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Hospitals in Washington state have more than 6,000 vacant nursing positions and no immediate way to fill them, according to a recent survey. 

The Washington State Hospital Association surveyed 80 hospitals, representing 85% of hospital beds in the state, in October and learned many are in desperate need of nursing staff. 

All together, the hospitals said there have 6,100 vacant positions and that 28,940 nurse positions are currently filled. Travel nurses, which are nurses hired temporarily to assist in hospitals, are filling nearly 3,000 of those positions at the moment. But Chelene Whiteaker, senior vice president of government affairs for WSHA, told KOIN 6 News relying so heavily on travel nurses is not sustainable. 

“Hospitals have not had increases in the amount that they’re getting paid to be able to meet those salary levels that the travel nurses, agencies are paying,” she said. 

Whiteaker said travel nurses often get paid more than other nurses and eventually, once the COVID-related government funding runs out, hospitals won’t be able to keep up with the wages expected by travel nurses. 

“Hospitals are going to have to start making decisions about how to either cut expenses or try to increase revenues,” she said. “If you’re going to try to increase your revenue you need to negotiate with insurance companies on how much you’re getting paid.” 

The better option would be to hire staff, but right now, Whiteaker said the supply of qualified candidates can’t keep up with the demand across the country. 

“I think this could be more of a crisis than COVID, is staffing shortages,” said Jennifer Obbard, associate dean of health sciences at Clark College in Vancouver. 

Obbard, the administrator for the Clark College nursing school, said the level of interest in pursuing nursing degrees hasn’t diminished, but colleges and universities are facing their own staffing issues that limit the number of students they can enroll. 

At Clark College, Obbard said they have full staffing, but it hasn’t been stable. She said the college has hired people during the pandemic, but some of them didn’t stay long.  

“We’re holding on, but it doesn’t feel strong,” Obbard said. “We hope that it will stabilize, but I’m worried about it, because the number of faculty nationwide is pretty small and that’s declining too due to retirement.” 

Obbard said if the school could maintain more permanent and assured faculty, then it would consider seeking approval for increasing its enrollment. 

WSHA says graduating more nurses who will stay in Washington is the solution to the staffing shortage. That would require increasing health facility capacity for clinical placements, which Obbard said has been another issue during the pandemic. 

Without enough staff at hospitals, colleges and universities lose clinical sites where they can train students.

“It’s not the same when we have to replace it with virtual simulation,” Obbard said. “It matters to see more than one patient with congestive heart failure, to see those differences, to see how the individual patients respond.” 

Whiteaker said WSHA realizes the problem is cyclical and she and Obbard both feel more conversations need to take place to come up with ways to fill the gaps and educate more students. 

While Washington’s nurse shortage is dire, it’s on par with what the rest of the country is experiencing. The WSHA survey found that turnover rates in Washington are 17% compared with the national rate of 19%. This makes hiring even more difficult because Washington hospitals know there are job vacancies across the country. 

The survey also showed that 85% of hospitals are offering extra shift bonuses and 61% are offering retention bonuses, and sometimes that still isn’t enough to keep nurses. 

Washington hospitals have been offering retention incentives such as extra shift bonuses, retention bonuses and increases in base pay to try to keep their nurses, according to a survey collected in October 2021. Courtesy Washington State Hospital Association

According to the survey, the greatest turnover rate was among medical-surgical nurses. Whiteaker said these nurses have seen a lot of COVID-19 patients in the last two years, and it’s been mentally draining for them. 

Burnout has been an issue repeatedly cited among nurses and medical staff during the pandemic. However, the survey found that other issues like relocating for a spouse’s job, leaving to be a travel nurse, and retiring all ranked higher as reasons nurses left their jobs. 

Reasons registered nurses gave for leaving their jobs at Washington hospitals in October 2021. WSHA said the “other” reason breaks down mostly into three things: they failed to do the exit interview, they relocated for their own job, or they left for a job that paid more at another institution. Courtesy Washington State Hospital Association

Still, Whiteaker said she and her educators are keeping burnout in mind when preparing the next generation of nurses to enter the field. She said it’s important to teach nurses that they need to take care of themselves, instead of constantly taking care of others.  

“It’s really about how do we, at the nursing program level, begin to develop internal capacities for wholeness?” Obbard explained. “That is being able to recognize and state boundaries, healthy ones, that is not feeling guilty about taking time for yourself.” 

Obbard said there needs to be a vision beyond what the nursing industry has at the moment. She knows the shortages aren’t only impacting hospitals, they’re also impacting at-home and long-term care facilities. 

While she doesn’t have an immediate answer to the problem, she hopes more will be done to ensure nurses aren’t leaving their careers prematurely and that the industry can work together to find solutions.

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