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Senate Committee Examines Nursing Shortage

On May 17, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing to examine the nursing shortage. Committee Chair James Jeffords (R-VT) opened the hearing, saying, “We have heard that the direct care staffing shortage is exacerbated by a growing population of the elderly needing care, by fewer people seeking a career in the nursing field, and by the reality that those trained are leaving the profession sooner.”

William Scanlon of the General Accounting Office (GAO) concurred with the Chair’s assessment and added that the nursing shortage is likely to worsen in the future. “The population aged 65 years and older will double from 2000 to 2030.…At the same time, the number of persons who have traditionally worked in the nursing workforce—women between 25 and 54 years of age—is expected to remain relatively unchanged over the period from 2000 to 2030.”

According to Mr. Scanlon’s testimony, nursing school enrollment rates are declining: “A recent study reported that women graduating from high school in the 1990s were 35 percent less likely to become RNs than women who graduated in the 1970s.” He added, “Over the past 25 years, career opportunities available to women have expanded significantly, while there has been a corresponding decline of interest by women in nursing as a career.”

Mr. Scanlon also highlighted a number of other factors compounding the nursing shortage such as job dissatisfaction, low wages, few benefits, and difficult working conditions.

Dr. Julie Sochalski of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing echoed Mr. Scanlon’s comments, saying, “The nursing shortage is a symptom of an underlying crisis in hospital care reflected in many recent studies which show that higher workloads, restructured work, and low levels of administrative support are creating a hospital nursing workforce with high levels of job dissatisfaction and burnout.”

She detailed a survey of over 13,000 nurses in Pennsylvania hospitals, which found that over 80 percent of the nurses surveyed “indicated that the number of patients they care for each shift had increased over the previous year.” Additionally, three-quarters of all nurses surveyed reported working overtime each week. Only one-third of all nurses surveyed reported the “quality of care on their unit as excellent and nearly one-half said the quality of care had deteriorated at their hospital over the previous year.”

Michael Elsas of Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), a licensed home health care agency, detailed the work of his agencies. “The focus of each agency is to deliver good care by creating good job opportunities for low-income women, often minorities and new immigrants.” While stating that the turnover rates at CHCA are “significantly lower then industry averages,” he acknowledged that “home care work typically offers only part-time hours and thus part-time pay and aides in many nursing homes are now forced to serve far too many beds—creating unsafe conditions for both client and worker.”

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