Two studies released last week painted a grim picture of healthcare staffing in this country as more than one in seven hospitals reported they do not have enough registered nurses.
With the demand for medical services growing, a "severe shortage of healthcare workers" is getting worse, according to a report released by several industry trade groups, including the American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals.
"These workforce shortages are a burgeoning problem that pose a serious threat to our nation's healthcare system," federation President Charles "Chip" Kahn said in a written statement released with the report. "We hope this study will serve as a jumping-off point for Congress to act this year to alleviate this problem."
The report was released as Congress prepared to receive President Bush's 2003 budget plan this week. The data support the groups' appeals to Congress for funding to combat staffing shortages. One day after the AHA-backed report came out, the American Organization of Nurse Executives, an AHA subsidiary, released a similar report quantifying a shortage of nurses nationwide.
A tight labor market for nurses has drawn the most public attention, but the personnel shortage encompasses other fields as well, including emergency-room workers, imaging technicians and pharmacists.
Shortages reportedly exist and are worsening throughout the country, although problems from insufficient staffing are most acute in the Northeast, according to the industry-commissioned report, based on a 2001 survey and prepared by First Consulting Group, Long Beach, Calif.
The national nurse vacancy rate of 13% will reach 15% by 2003, based on a "very conservative" estimate, the report said. Growing rates of turnover among nurses are another problem for hospitals, the report concluded. Forty-two percent of hospitals said they've experienced higher rates of nurse turnover since 1999.
Indicative of the tight labor market for nurses, 60% of 1,092 hospitals surveyed said recruiting nurses had become more difficult over the past two years. To address the problem, 89% of hospitals said they have paid "higher or much higher" salaries to retain nurses, 56% have used agency or traveling nurses to fill vacant positions and 41% have paid signing bonuses.
Patients are being affected, too, according to the report. Thirty-four percent of hospitals polled indicated that staffing shortages have increased patient complaints and decreased patient satisfaction. The personnel shortage is also contributing to overcrowding in emergency rooms and ambulance diversions.
The market for imaging technicians and pharmacists is as bad or worse, with hospitals reporting vacancy rates of 15.3% and 12.7%, respectively. "Hospitals are competing with retail pharmacies and biotechnology firms for pharmacists. Retail chains are growing and they are offering better hours, higher pay and sometimes luxury automobiles to recruit staff," the report said.
Other organizations that commissioned the study include the Association of American Medical Colleges and the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems.
The second study released last week confirmed some findings in the workforce shortage report. The AONE survey showed national vacancy rates for RNs range from 14.6% in critical-care units to 6.5% for nurse managers. Fifty-one percent of nurse executives polled said staff shortages have caused emergency department overcrowding, 69% reported higher costs to deliver care, and 25% reported having to close beds.