When health care experts talk about the supply of nurses nationwide, they usually warn of a shortfall if more young people don’t go into the profession. But here in West Virginia, “there is a nursing shortage. It’s not coming, it’s here,” said Ron Moore, vice president and chief nursing officer for Charleston Area Medical Center.
Nursing shortages are forcing West Virginia hospitals to close beds, hire traveling nurses at great expense to fill the gap, and possibly provide sub-optimal care to patients.
“There is a direct correlation -- looking at different studies that have been published -- between the number of nurses and patient mortality, meaning the number of patients who die within a hospital system or while they’re in the hospital receiving care,” said Dr. Melody Wilkinson, a Charleston native who directs the family nurse practitioner program at Georgetown University.
Resons for the Shortages
Wilkinson said there are three main reasons for the shortage:
- Baby boomers are retiring
- Not as many young people are going into the profession
- Those who teach nursing are seriously underpaid.
“There’s a significant income disparity between the earning potential of an advanced practice nurse (comparable to a nurse practitioner) in clinical practice and a faculty member,” she said.
In West Virginia, nurse practitioners earn an average of around $93,000 a year while nursing faculty members with graduate degrees earn about $59,000, which is barely higher than floor nurses with a bachelor’s degree earn.
“Unless you really have a passion and a desire to be a nurse educator, we don’t see people migrating to that field, because of the pay,” Moore said.
Moore said without qualified nursing faculty to teach the people who might want to be in a nursing program, states like West Virginia aren’t going to be able graduate enough nurses to meet the needs of its aging population.
Nursing Graduation Rates
In 2016, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing published a report on U.S. nursing graduation rates.
“The AACN estimated that annually we may see up to 64,000 qualified applicants who are unable to be accepted into schools of nursing for various reasons, but the primary reason is an inadequate nurse faculty workforce,” said Wilkinson. “So there’s simply not the capacity to educate those qualified applicants to help them graduate to become nurses.”
It’s not clear exactly how acute the nursing shortage problem is in West Virginia, because there is no mandate with a penalty requiring hospitals to report the data.
And national data may be inaccurate. Toni Dichiaccho, president of the West Virginia Nurses Association, said a recent federal report made the assumption when they began data collection in 2012 that the current supply of nurses equaled the demand. But in 2012, West Virginia was likely already short.
“And then they also made the assumption that all nurses trained in West Virginia would stay in West Virginia, which as a West Virginia resident, we all know, is a big jump,” said Dichiaccho.
Ron Moore said part of the reason it’s a big jump is not because nurses don’t want to work in West Virginia hospitals, but rather because the economy doesn’t support spouses.
“(Female) nurses who are already in the profession--we’ve lost significant number of those nurses because of their husbands not being able to have employment in West Virginia,” said Moore. “So they’ve had to leave the state in order to gain employment.”
They key word here is husbands -- despite the nursing shortage and bad economic situation of West Virginia, the nursing profession is still hugely dominated by women.
But nursing programs are trying innovative strategies to try and bring more people into the profession. Wilkinson, for instance, talked about new online nursing programs - but these only work if the state fully has access to broadband, which West Virginia does not.
And Moore detailed a new “junior nursing academy” CAMC launched this year to get middle school students interested in the profession. But even if these students get interested in nursing and decide to pursue the profession down the road, will there be a spot for them in a training program? Maybe, or or maybe not.
Until the earnings of nursing professors approach those of other nurses with advanced degrees, the shortage is unlikely to improve.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.