Hospitals across the nation are working to provide care in spite of a nursing shortage — and Catholic hospitals are no exception.
Research on the nursing workforce conducted in April 2022 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing indicated the total number of registered nurses decreased by more than 100,000, or 2 percent, from 2020 to 2021, which was the largest drop recorded in four decades. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections through 2031 anticipate the registered nurse workforce will grow by 195,400 nurses, statistics show that while the shortage is improving, many hospitals aren’t out of the woods just yet.
Karla Robles, a parishioner at St. Theresa Church in Little Rock, has been a registered nurse at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock since 2011. She said she has seen the effects of the nursing shortage firsthand.
“I have seen it in my unit,” she said. “I have seen the shortage, and I have seen both of the reasons … because of COVID and retirement. Nurses that graduate are coming in to work, but they’re not staying … It is a lot of burnout, too. We’ve had some new nurses in our unit that said … their clinical experience wasn’t the same because of COVID.”
Although Robles only works weekends so she can spend more time with her family, she has noticed a few differences in routines to combat the nursing shortage.
“Personally, I haven’t worked extra, but I know that the hospital that I work in provides incentives to work extra,” usually in the form of extra monetary compensation, Robles said.
For Robles, shortages come and go.
“We have periods that we’re staffed and then we have periods where nurses leave all at the same time. I could see where it affected me as working harder just because when we’re short staffed, I have to do more … I don’t pick up extra shifts, but I have to work more during my shift. I have a bigger patient load and more responsibilities.”
As nurses like Robles navigate the nursing shortage, three Catholic hospitals in Arkansas shared what they’re doing to overcome the shortage while promoting the Catholic faith.
Mercy Fort Smith currently employs 806 nurses with a 16 percent nurse vacancy rate. Chief nursing officer Stephanie Whitaker said these numbers are in line with the current national trend, and the pandemic contributed to the nursing shortage across the country.
“Health care organizations experienced core nurses transitioning to travel nursing roles and some experienced nurses accelerated their retirement timeline. Currently, we are rebuilding our core nursing staff and leveraging multiple workforce layers to care for our community,” Whitaker told Arkansas Catholic in an email.
She described multiple approaches Mercy Fort Smith has used to cope with the nursing shortage.
“For example, ‘Mercy Works on Demand’ was introduced in late 2021 and has been a great success in our communities. The program’s intent is to fill shifts left empty by the high turnover of nursing staff with gig workers who are looking for a more flexible schedule. These gig nurses can fill a slot when a core co-worker opts out of a shift by using a custom app. The addition of gig nursing has helped us increase our fill rate by 5 percent while decreasing both labor costs and the turnover rate,” Whitaker wrote.
Whitaker said Mercy Fort Smith is also working on ways to curtail nursing shortages in the future by investing in nursing school students.
“Mercy Fort Smith was awarded approximately $890,000 from the Windgate Foundation to help increase the nursing pipeline and provide additional clinical support for more than 30 additional nursing students,” Whiteaker wrote.
Whitaker said Mercy Fort Smith understands the importance of caring for the caregivers as well.
“Mercy provides each co-worker with eight hours of paid volunteer time each year, which allows us to give back to our communities through a variety of volunteer opportunities,” Whitaker wrote. “While health care is challenging, it is a most rewarding career, allowing us to bring to life the healing ministry of Jesus through compassionate care and exceptional service.”
For Whitaker, continuing to uphold Catholic service is in the Mercy Health system’s DNA. The first Mercy hospitals were founded by, Sister Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831.
St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro is also experiencing a nursing shortage. Vice president of nursing Emily McGee said accelerated retirement, travel nursing and a decrease in nursing school enrollment have impacted them. Because many nursing school programs were drastically altered, McGee said many nursing departments are providing additional training and education.
McGee said St. Bernards is coping with the nursing shortage in several ways.
“First and foremost, we've been focusing on retention and well-being with our current St. Bernard's family,” she said. “We want to ensure that all of our current staff are very well cared for and feel their needs are met as an employee at St. Bernard's, because we definitely don't want to lose any additional nurses or support staff. We’ve focused on how we can change our workflows to ensure that our patients have the appropriate level of care. We implemented team nursing, which involves a registered nurse and a licensed practical nurse caring for a larger team of patients, but they're caring for them together.”
McGee said the results of this practice have been promising and have encouraged the implementation of digital health care and virtual nursing techniques through apps and cameras as well.
“While that doesn't change our nurse to patient ratio, it does allow a registered nurse to perform tasks virtually in the patient's room that don't require being at the bedside. That has really decreased the workload of our bedside nurses and allowed them to spend more time with the patient,” McGee said.
In spite of the nursing shortage, St. Bernards is still working to uphold Catholic values.
“We were founded by the Olivetan Benedictine sisters and while, early in the pandemic, they were not able to be on site with us, they still stayed in constant communication via Zoom and phone calls. And our pastoral care department … was able to continue the care that they provide to our patients. Our pastoral care department also provided support to our nurses,” McGee said.
Mercy Northwest Arkansas in Rogers currently has 671 nurses, with a nurse vacancy rate of 11 percent, according to chief nursing officer Jacqueline Truesdale.
“This is an ongoing challenge that health care systems will be facing forever,” she said. “It began prior to COVID and definitely is more challenging post-COVID. Many nurses left the bedside or even left the profession. Many of our baby boomers are retiring, which is a large part of the workforce.”
Fortunately, things are beginning to look up for many hospitals, including Mercy Northwest.
“The shortage has always been there, but the pandemic accelerated the demand for nurses … As of today, the rates are on the way down to pre-pandemic rates, and nurses are settling back into their home in NWA in the Mercy culture,” Truesdale wrote in response to Arkansas Catholic’s questions.
For Truesdale, the key has been maintaining relationships with nursing schools and using different workforce options, as well as licensed practical nurses (LPNs) with a host of specialities. Through a series of apps and programs, nurses have greater flexibility in scheduling their work shifts and improving staffing.
Truesdale said Mercy NWA will continue to “build strong relationships with local schools as well as reach a little further into other areas of the state and across the state line in Missouri,” she said. “We have multiple clinical partnerships and will continue to expand the relationships with future colleges as we move forward. We continue to hire LPNs within many different specialty departments only adding to the layers of nursing.”
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