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As the nursing shortage worsens, health systems are raising pay, but the problem goes deeper than that

The nursing shortage in Pennsylvania — and across the country — isn’t new, it’s just been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to the head of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association in Harrisburg.  

Betsy M. Snook, says the more than 1,000 nurses who have died from COVID-19 to date, coupled with utter exhaustion, has amplified this long-standing issue in health care.   

“The field in general was down before COVID,” she says. “Now we are in round four of the virus. They are weary and it seems like there is not an end in sight. I am hearing stories that some are leaving mid-shift. They are tired and they have had it.”  

According to some accounts, nationwide, as many as 25 percent of nurses have left their jobs, Snook adds. Hospitals are probably experiencing the worst shortages in bedside nurses and nurses on medical/surgical units, she says, but the problem is across-the-board.   

“We are getting calls asking if there are any other jobs outside of bedside nursing that they can apply to,” she says. “But nurses in other areas are being asked to go to other units. You can have a maternity nurse being asked to go to a COVID unit to nurse.”  

The Nurses Association has been putting out PSA’s attacking the nursing shortage from two different perspectives, urging people to get vaccinated against COVID and encouraging more people to consider nursing as a profession.   

Some health systems have been offering large signing bonuses, some as high as $15,000, to attract nurses to their organization, she said. “And, many are giving extra money to work longer shifts. They’re trying to keep them in the hospital.”  

St. Luke’s University Health Network, headquartered in Fountain Hill, has turned to financial compensation as a way to attract and retain its nurses, according to Samuel Kennedy, director of corporate communications.   

“We have increased wages and have offered sign-on and retention bonuses for specific positions,” he said. “St. Luke’s offers a competitive benefit package including and not limited to first-day coverage for medical insurance for eligible employees and a generous time off package.”   

Attempts to reach Lehigh Valley Health Network for comment were unsuccessful.  

Snook says everybody is trying something different to attack the problem.  

“There are various things people are doing to get people into the profession and keep them there,” she says. “There are organizations looking to repay some student loans. When you offer someone some type of support with their college loans, they are more willing to sign something that says they will stay for 2-3 years.”  

St. Luke’s, which operates the nation’s longest continually operating nursing school, is also helping with academic costs, according to Kennedy. “We are developing homegrown talent,” he says. “Some students enjoy subsidized tuition. And we’ve expanded enrollment by introducing new class schedules and alternative pathways toward graduation.”  

The PA Nurses Association is also trying to tackle the shortage through education and intends to launch what it is calling a nurses middle college for students in grades 9-12 to prepare them for a bachelor’s degree in nursing, according to Snook.    

“We want to support students to get into a baccalaureate nursing program, because the more  advanced degree offers them study in community health care and more and more of our health care is going out into the community. You just do not get into that with the associates degree,” she says.  

A registered and trademarked curriculum has already been developed for the private high school, which will be located in Harrisburg, and there are plans to open satellite schools in other major Pennsylvania cities down the road. A capital campaign to support the project is in the works.  

Ten universities have already submitted letters of support, indicating that they will accept the school’s graduates into their nursing programs, she says. Harrisburg Area Community College has agreed to grant a nurse aide certificate to graduates of the high school. 

Nurses Association Government Relations Specialist Noah Logan says the nursing shortage in Pennsylvania will never be solved until there is legislation to ensure safe staffing, including things like acceptable nurse:-patient ratios..  

“Nurse burnout is because of poor staffing levels in hospitals,” he said. “There is only a certain number of patients that a nurse can safely care for and for every extra patient that that nurse has, that patient’s chance of dying increases 7 to 13%. That’s how critical it is that we have enough nurses.” 

Logan says PSNA, along with other organizations including nurses’ unions, have worked to develop such legislation — HB106 and SB240 — but they have had little success in getting it through the General Assembly. There are minimum standards for the number of children a child care worker can look after during the day, but no similar standards for nurses working in the pediatric wing of hospitals, he said. “We need our legislators and CEOs to hear this. If there are no nurses, people will die, it has become that extreme.” 

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