The nursing shortage in the United States is no new issue, but it has evolved into a dire situation. Before the emergence of COVID-19, hospitals were already struggling to fill roles since many health systems are in emergency mode to staff their facilities.
Acute care nurses are needed most to serve the growing population of elderly and geriatric patients with chronic and critical conditions. However, it’s essential to understand why so few acute care nurses exist overall before leaders can properly address this problem.
Acute Care Nursing: A Quick Primer
Acute care nursing is sometimes referred to interchangeably with critical care nursing. While they both require specific skills and “on the spot” action, there are some differences.
For instance, acute care nurses do work in critical care settings. Still, they primarily assist in addressing scenarios such as bone fractures, burns, concussions, high fevers, wounds and routine surgical procedures like appendectomies and gall bladder removal. Generally, acute care nurses work with patients on a more short-term basis.
Critical care nurses work alongside healthcare professionals attending to spinal cord damage, broken bones, heart conditions, respiratory failure, organ failure, severe infections and life-threatening diseases. They may be caring for patients who require long-term hospitalization.
The Demand Is Clear … So Why No Supply?
When you look at the numbers, it’s understandable why hospital administrators are so concerned. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be an expected 276,800 openings for registered nurses each year through 2030. Plus, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that one million nurses will retire by 2030.
Retirement isn’t the only factor at play, either. Nurses are leaving the field due to burnout — not surprising, due to the extreme conditions COVID-19 initiated and the nature of the profession. There could be a “mass exodus” as the pandemic starts to ease. Nurses pushed to the limit may have felt obligated to stay on until they weren’t needed so desperately.
Individuals are also living longer lives but not without healthcare demands or chronic conditions. So, the need for nurses with acute care experience in the geriatric population is rising rapidly — as is the need for adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AG-ACNPs). One of the biggest contributing problems, however, is lack of instruction in this area, whether at the RN level or AG-ACNP programs.
The Void in Acute Care Nursing Instruction
In a report published by The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing (OJIN), Sherry Lynn Donaworth, DNP, ACNP-BC, FNP-BC states:
“The growing disparity between the numbers of critical care providers to the numbers of patients has precipitated the increased need for adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AG-ACNP) in critical care arenas. However, many specific critical care competencies are not integrated into the AG-ACNP’s core curriculum.”
The same is true of RN to BSN programs, which typically only include one course on gerontology-focused instruction and no specific coursework dedicated only to acute care. The gerontology track focuses on health maintenance and preservation rather than acute-care situations.
Innovative Solutions to a Growing Problem
There’s no one solution to the overall nursing shortage, the acute care nursing shortage or the lack of acute care nursing training in the geriatric population. However, better integration of acute care nursing into nursing education programs is a crucial factor.
Many institutions have upped the ante to retain employees by offering bonuses to hire and keep nurses with acute care experience. For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that the University of Arkansas for Medical Science (UAMS) offers a $25,000 bonus for experienced acute care nurses and $10,000 retention bonuses for nurses who have been at the organization for at least three years. On top of signing bonuses, UMass Memorial Health is incentivizing current nurses up to $5,000 for referring nurses who take on critical care jobs.
Of course, money isn’t the only motivation for those in the healthcare field, but it sure does help in many instances, and it demonstrates the widespread need for trained providers.
Where Do We Go from Here?
With the lack of acute care nurses in the geriatric population a pressing situation, the hope is that it will finally get the attention it deserves. Nursing professionals can boost their career prospects and better serve patient populations with an advanced MSN degree in adult gerontology.