“The United States is producing about 170,000 nurses a year, but 80,000 qualified applicants were rejected in 2019 because of a lack of teaching staff.” 

BOZEMAN — A Montana State University nursing economist was featured in a recent New York Times article about a nationwide shortage of nurses and the risks that accompany the shortage.

The piece, “‘Nursing is in crisis’: Staff shortages put patients at risk,” was published Aug. 21 and included quotes from MSU nursing professor Peter Buerhaus, an expert on the economics of the nursing workforce and head of the MSU Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies.

“Nursing shortages have long vexed hospitals,” wrote New York Times health and science reporter Andrew Jacobs. “But in the year and a half since its ferocious debut in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has stretched the nation’s nurses as never before, testing their skills and stamina as desperately ill patients with a poorly understood malady flooded emergency rooms.”

Jacobs went on to note that nurses remained steadfast amid a shortage of personal protective equipment, and, spurred by a sense of duty, nurses flocked to hot zones and sometimes worked as volunteers. He reported that more than 1,200 nurses nationwide have died from the coronavirus.

Jacobs continued: “Now, as the highly contagious delta variant pummels the United States, bedside nurses, the workhorse of a well-oiled hospital, are depleted and traumatized, their ranks thinned by early retirements or career shifts that traded the emergency room for less stressful nursing jobs at schools, summer camps and private doctor’s offices.”

And, he noted, “across the country, the shortages are complicating efforts to treat hospitalized coronavirus patients, leading to longer emergency room waiting times and rushed or inadequate care as health workers struggle to treat patients who often require exacting, round-the-clock attention.”

Furthermore, Jacobs wrote, when hospitals lack nurses to treat those who need less intensive care, emergency rooms and I.C.U.s are unable to move out patients, creating a traffic jam that limits their ability to admit new ones.

Peter Buerhaus. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)

Jacobs wrote that MSU’s Buerhaus was included in the story as being “especially rattled” by two data points: “A third of the nation’s nurses were born during the baby boom years, with 640,000 nearing retirement; and the demographic bulge of aging boomers needing intensive medical care will only increase the demand for hospital nurses.”

“I’m raising the yellow flag because a sudden withdrawal of so many experienced nurses would be disastrous for hospitals,” Buerhaus said in the article.

Jacobs wrote that many experts fear the exodus will accelerate as the pandemic drags on and burnout intensifies and that surveys suggest that nurses are feeling increasingly embattled. Nurses are also angry that so many Americans have refused to get vaccinated, Jacobs wrote.

“They feel betrayed and disrespected,” Buerhaus said.

Jacobs noted that there is not a simple solution, and increasing the nation’s nursing workforce is no easy task. “The United States is producing about 170,000 nurses a year, but 80,000 qualified applicants were rejected in 2019 because of a lack of teaching staff,” he wrote.

On Aug. 30, the MSU College Nursing announced a gift of $101 million from Mark and Robyn Jones, founders of Goosehead Insurance Inc., who have a home in Whitefish. The gift — the largest ever given to a college of nursing, as well as the largest private gift in the history of the state of Montana — will allow the college to meet the state’s projected shortfall in baccalaureate-prepared registered nurses by 2030, and it will also allow the college to double the number of family nurse practitioners and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners that graduate from MSU by 2030, and to start a certified nurse midwifery program, according to Sarah Shannon, dean of the college. Ultimately, the gift aims to help increase access to health care in Montana, particularly primary, mental health and maternal care in rural and remote areas. More information is available at montana.edu/news/21412.

The full New York Times story is available online at nytimes.com/2021/08/21/health/covid-nursing-shortage-delta.html.