Home » Op-Ed: Kentucky’s nursing shortage crisis must be addressed at all levels

Op-Ed: Kentucky’s nursing shortage crisis must be addressed at all levels

by Alison Bell, regional vice president for Western Governors University

If we don’t act now, Kentucky may not be able to care for all patients within its healthcare systems. That is the Commonwealth’s nursing shortage boiled down to one single point, which was recently launched front and center when Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order, which declared the state’s nursing shortage a crisis.

A shortfall of qualified healthcare professionals has been ongoing long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the burden this public health crisis placed on our hospitals only exacerbated the problem. In fact, many nurses are even choosing to hand in their resignation letters and pursue a different career path entirely. Now, Kentucky is projected to need 16,000 nurses by 2024 in order to fill this gap due to retirements and workers leaving the profession.

Our nurses serve as a critical touchpoint in our healthcare system and we cannot afford to continue losing this essential talent needed to carry out quality care. However, there are solutions within reach to help address the dire need for nurses throughout Kentucky. That includes increasing our ability to grow our nursing talent pipeline, which can be done by eliminating capacity limits within our education system, expanding opportunities for those wanting to enter the profession and curbing burnout to help retain talent and support existing nurses.

Turning away qualified nursing candidates
Kentucky’s executive order and Senate Bill 10 both address the need to increase the Commonwealth’s capacity for nurses by lifting the limited number of nursing students that higher education institutions can admit to their programs. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing found more people are interested in pursuing this career, but many qualified candidates are rejected from programs. This organization found more than 80,000 qualified applicants nationwide were turned away in the 2019-2020 school year from undergraduate and graduate programs because of an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and clinical preceptors, as well as budget constraints.

Clear career pathways to upskill
While removing the cap of nursing school admissions is a great first step, we cannot neglect the need for more qualified nurses to educate these candidates. One way to accomplish this task is by encouraging current nurses to upskill through a competency-based model. This allows higher education institutions to meet nurses where they are, apply the experience and skills they already have and help them add more skills to their toolkit to help educate the next generation of nurses. Additionally, these programs can be completed in less time, which the Future of Nursing 2020-2030: Charting a Path to Achieve Health Equity report suggests will help improve access and encourage more nurses to take the next step in their education.

This is especially important for rural communities throughout the state who are feeling this pinch in our health systems the most. By removing barriers for students and providing them an opportunity to gain these skills quickly, we are more likely to fill these gaps. Online education options and accessible mentorship opportunities will encourage nurses to continue to work for healthcare systems in their hometowns and support rural hospital needs.

Combating burnout to retain talent
You don’t have to look much further than news headlines or your social media feed to learn that nurses everywhere are burnt out. Much of this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the overwhelming impact it has had and continues to have, on our healthcare system and its workforce. As we recover from this public health crisis, we find ourselves experiencing a heightened urgency to keep nurses engaged, which can be addressed by creating an education-focused environment. By encouraging our more experienced nurses to upskill and earn a master’s-level education and simultaneously leaning on more innovative models for clinical education for new nurses, we can help retain employees and strengthen our pipeline of talent for years to come, increasing the resiliency of the healthcare workforce in the wake of future challenges.

Our nurses have shown tremendous perseverance on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, but our current strategy for retaining, upskilling and growing the healthcare workforce is not sustainable. It is now more clear than ever that the current shortage of talent needs to be addressed at all levels, with an emphasis on increasing access to affordable, flexible higher education programs, if we want to ensure Kentuckians are equipped with the nursing care it deserves for years to come.

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