BOSTON — For more than two years, they’ve been hailed as ‘Healthcare Heroes.’ But it appears that is not enough motivation to keep some nurses on the job.
“A lot of nurses who went into the profession in the last couple of years during the pandemic were really thrown in at the deep end,” said Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a practicing ICU nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The stressors continue — and it is very concerning that we’re reading more and more that young nurses are considering leaving the profession, leaving the bedside altogether, because of the conditions under which they’re working.”
And new data makes clear it is young nurses leaving the profession in a much higher proportion than older nurses. Analysts at Montana State University found that, during the pandemic years of 2019 through 2021, the total nursing workforce shrank by 1.8 percent. But while 1 percent of those 50 or older quit nursing, 4 percent of those under 35 did so.
“They’re young, they’re well educated, they can go on to other professions that don’t require them to stay an extra four hours or eight hours after their shift,” Murphy said. “They’re starting families, they have kids. They’re less able to stay when the staffing isn’t adequate on the next shift.”
But they’re also leaving behind careers that are hard-won, academically.
“It’s very challenging to get in,” said Katherine Gregory, PhD, dean of the Boston College Connell School of Nursing. “We’re one of the most competitive majors to be accepted into. We can only admit a certain number of students and so the students admitted are often the most academically talented.”
Nursing is also one of the most highly competitive majors at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, where just 12 percent of applicants gain admission.
Gregory said the nursing shortage might be helped by more graduates, but that barriers exist to making that happen — including a shortage of clinical instructors and lack of clinical rotation space. She suggested the shortage is turning into a public health issue.
“We know that nurses across the span of their professional career are struggling right now,” Gregory said. “We can’t solve this on our own. We can’t solve this as universities. We can’t solve this as hospitals. We need to work in partnership with one another.”
The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which represents the healthcare industry in the state, said institutions are developing partnerships with colleges to develop “pipeline programs,” which will hopefully funnel in the next generation of nurses. Local hospitals have also put into place programs to address burnout, the MHA said, as well as help with home and child care.
But Murphy suggested hospitals have a long way to go to make nurses want to work as nurses again.
“We’re hearing the word burnout,” she said. “But then a lot of the language is changing that word to exploitation. And that’s the way nurses are feeling. That’s the situation they’re in.”
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