Commentary: Utah faces a crisis shortage of skilled nurses

The Tribune’s continuous coverage of nurse Alex Wubble’s arrest for doing her job, begs for kudos to Wubble and further commentary about the profession she personifies.

Sadly, skilled nurses like Wubbel are in high demand and short supply. Currently there are more Americans over the age of 65 than at any other time in United States’ history. Senior citizens dramatically increase the need for geriatric care and the debilitating affects of aging. As the population grows, demand for health care will grow. The aging population and chronic disease are creating the perfect storm, driving the demand for nurses.

To complicate the problem, like the patients they serve, the country’s nurses are also aging. Over a million registered nurses are over 50 years of age, meaning about one-half the nursing workforce will reach retirement in the next two decades.

The nursing education system hasn’t kept pace, effectively creating a bottleneck in which a limited number of aspiring nurses can access the training they need. In 2016-2017, U.S. nursing schools turned away 65,000 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs due to insufficient numbers faculty, clinical sites and especially budget constraints.

The University of Utah’s College of Nursing had to refuse the applications of 389 people pursuing nursing careers due to lack of funding. The eight publicly supported Utah colleges of nursing have turned away 900 qualified nursing applicants for entry-level nursing programs.

Aging also becomes a factor, as many nursing faculty members are approaching retirement. Without them, nursing schools can’t expand their cohorts. As the number of nurse educators drop, schools have to maintain their critical student-to-teacher ratios. Preparation for nursing faculty is a doctoral degree and you can’t just replace someone in these positions. The trajectory of timeline to fill jobs, from which faculty are retiring, is much longer.

All nursing programs in the U.S., including the University of Utah College of Nursing, are competing to receive and retain highly sought-after faculty. Unfortunately, higher compensation and private-sector opportunities are luring current and potential faculty away from teaching.

I cannot overstate the importance of skilled nurses and their service to society, which we’re inclined to take for granted. Studies have shown that in hospitals staffed with bachelor degree nurses there are fewer deaths, fewer failure to rescue incidents, lower rates of infection and shorter hospital stays.

My own daughter-in-law, who suffered a high-risk pregnancy and precarious delivery, credits the expertise of nurses and her doctor for saving the life of her newborn.

And lest we forget, nurses have been and always will be our first responders. Whether it be a earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane or any other consequential disaster, nurses immediately volunteer to rescue and assist the afflicted. Meanwhile, the nursing faculty shortage is on the cusp of a crisis, one with disconcerting implications for patients and health care providers alike.

To perpetuate this crisis is unworthy of us. To address this extremely important and difficult situation, is a sacred duty.

Joanne S. McGillis is an advocate for nurses, hoping that one will be available when needed.