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3 actions we can take now to support nurses

Throughout this pandemic, out of necessity, we changed the way we practice medicine. It is my belief that we can use these new practices to create a better system that provides more support and focus on nurse well-being, career development and collaboration, without sacrificing patient care.

While Covid-19 has impacted every industry, the field of nursing might be the most heartbreaking case yet. Nurses are leaving the profession and we must modernize their career path if we hope to keep them engaged.  

Our nursing shortage is nothing new, but Covid-19 and the recent emergence of the Omicron variant, further exacerbated it. Nurses are overworked and emotionally and physically drained. According to a recent survey, 29 percent of nurses say their desire to leave the profession is dramatically higher now versus pre-pandemic, citing inadequate staffing as a top contributor to the low satisfaction. The departure of experienced nurses leaving the front lines has major long-term implications for our healthcare system. 

Our healthcare system is elastic. It stretches to accommodate changing patient needs over time. This adaptability is critical during a crisis. When a tornado hits Oklahoma, local healthcare worker demand skyrockets instantly. Yet, the system can manage because professionals from unaffected neighboring communities are pulled in to balance the situation. This ensures an adequate rotation of healthcare workers.  

This proven practice was less effective to combat a global pandemic with no end in sight. The Covid-19 tornado didn’t just hit Oklahoma. It hit every town in every state and has now doubled back for good measure with an even more transmissible variant. The total ratio of workers-to-patients has been unsustainable. The pandemic is effectively stretching our healthcare system and its workers to its breaking point. And because of the altruistic nature of nurses, they simply will not allow their patients to be the ones who take the brunt of that break. The pressure, pain and exhaustion has secured itself to the shoulders of nurses.  

This is nothing new, but it is now substantially worse. I spent my clinical years working in the critical care division. There were moments when I knew that I needed to take time off to care for myself, but I also knew that if I chose to not pick up that extra shift that someone might die because there was no one else available to care for them. The pandemic has amplified this feeling of duty – and quite frankly guilt – to a whole new, unhealthy level. 

So, what can we do?

Throughout this pandemic, out of necessity, we changed the way we practice medicine. It is my belief that we can use these new practices to create a better system that provides more support and focus on nurse well-being, career development and collaboration, without sacrificing patient care. Here are three actions we can take now. 

Support and appreciation

“The day that a patient’s death doesn’t bother you – when it washes over you and you don’t feel affected by it – that’s the day you should come out of healthcare.” 

That’s a conversation I had with a nurse through my organization’s Covid-19 support hotline. One of 17,000 calls to date. Like many, she was struggling with the constant suffering. It’s always been a difficult career, but Covid-19 opened our eyes to the gaps in support nurses need. Hopefully one day soon, the pandemic will not be the focal point of our lives, but nurses will still carry the emotional toll of their patients. In some organizations, certainly at mine, mental health professionals have been brought on to provide nurses with support. The response has been profound. As a leader responsible for so many nurses, this is a tough pill to swallow: We should have had someone there all along. 

Nurses need to be heard and have a voice in paving the way of nursing’s future.  Allowing these professionals a voice will allow healthcare professionals the ability to shape, develop and redefine the nursing profession. 

Whether that be around cross training opportunities or mental health care, the urgency of support cannot fade away as we progress forward. It must be built into the foundation of the job itself to ensure that the well-being of our providers is at 100 percent because when they are fully supported, they deliver that 100 percent straight back to their patients. Nurses will always feel a sense of commitment to the patient, and we must never let a day pass where they become numb.

Modernizing requirements

One of the few positives that came out of this pandemic was the rapid innovation. Seemingly overnight, we found ways to get around archaic care models. For generations, the only way to see a healthcare provider was to make an appointment and come in person. Telehealth was quickly adopted and wildly successful with patients. Historically, nurses are shackled to the state in which they receive their license. But the pandemic required every available nurse to head to hard hit areas. We created a national licensure that allowed nurses to practice across state lines. This was done quickly and without compromising care. 

These are two examples of the many advances made in recent months. Now is the time to embrace progress and empower nurses to work in new and modern ways. 

Cross training

Following an overwhelming influx of sick patients, elective and preventative care procedures are being halted. This leaves a slew of healthcare professionals with varying skillsets and prestigious backgrounds sidelined. This siloed practice is contributing to the nursing shortage because even though these are experienced professionals, they do not check every box of the registered nurse. 

As an industry, we collectively worked to eliminate the red tape that prevented patients from receiving care. But it took time. As we move forward, we need to include new forms of cross training into the healthcare fields. Hospitals and other healthcare systems should encourage nurses to participate in a variety of cross training opportunities as much as possible. For example, allowing a nurse from the progressive care unit to temporarily shift to the intensive care unit. The nurse will gain new skillsets, build confidence, expand and gain a better understanding of another area. The nurse will learn communication and coordination and provide new insights and understanding between departments. In the long run, this will eliminate the lag time in a crisis and simultaneously provide new opportunities to nurses interested in different areas of medicine. 

This is especially important for nursing students. We know that the heroic actions of thousands across the country inspired a new generation of students to enroll or further their education in nursing with enrollment numbers increasing across the board in 2020, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). We owe it to them to innovate and open new pathways in healthcare. 

We must accept that change starts with teamwork, support and collaboration. If we do not take swift action to better support nurses these issues will remain. It is within our power to modernize the field of nursing. I believe we can implement lasting change through open communication, accepting new ideas and voices and embracing teamwork. This must be a collective effort across healthcare disciplines and verticals. Nurses deserve our full attention.

Photo: SDI Productions, Getty Images

As the Chief Clinical Officer for Cross Country Healthcare, Hank oversees the organization’s Clinical, Quality, Education and Regulatory Compliance. Throughout his more than 25-year career, Hank has applied his healthcare administration experience and a broad base of exceptional management expertise to assist organizations’ meet their long-term objective of delivery superior patient care. His past leadership roles have included executive and director level positions as Chief Nursing Officer, Nursing Administrator and Nurse Executive. He has also served as a University Instructor at Indiana University and Montana State University. Hank’s proficiency in balancing patient care with business efficiencies provides Cross Country Healthcare clients with an innovative approach, supported by cutting edge technology, to meet the daily demands of healthcare delivery. Hank earned his RN at St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing, his bachelor’s degree from Ottawa University, his master’s degree from Concordia University and was awarded a doctorate from Canterbury University.

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