JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In great demand, but short supply is the reality for healthcare systems when it comes to finding and retaining nurses.
This is a nationwide issue felt locally, despite millions of dollars in incentives being offered to attract these professionals.
News Channel 11 spoke with multiple nurses across Northeast Tennessee Thursday, all of whom say nursing is as rewarding as it is challenging, but that there are plenty of incentives both for students wanting to enter the workforce, and those wanting to continue the hard work.
“Something no one in today’s generation of nurses has ever experienced is a pandemic,” explained Morgan May, chief nursing officer at Johnson City Medical Center. “So that has completely changed the profession of nursing, and then has further exacerbated the shortage, just given the mental and emotional toll on people, people exiting hospital-based nursing, people exiting nursing in general as a profession, just given the toll from a mental and emotional standpoint.”
But nurses leaving hospitals due to the pandemic is an issue felt deeply, she added.
“We’re also to the point where a large population of our nurses that are in that baby boomer arena are retiring and phasing out today also there are so many more avenues for a nurse to be a nurse, used to the only way to be a nurse was to work inside of a hospital, but now you can be a nurse in a multitude of settings. So with that, though, inpatient admissions have slightly declined, we have not caught up with how now nurses are out in the community in outpatient areas. It creates a significant challenge. Nursing is a profession of servanthood. And so I would say the challenge is more from an emotional and mental standpoint, because we come to work every single day to give, and that’s what nurses do is they give,” May said.
She equated nursing during the height of the pandemic as working on a war-torn battlefield.
“Nurses are the first ones here and the last ones to leave, we’re here 24 hours. And the ones who, we’re involved in every aspect of the care. And on days where all your patients died. You had loved ones who couldn’t be here with their family members they spent Christmases alone anniversaries alone. Birthdays alone in the nurse had to be everything for the patient, all while battling their own emotions, as they have to process the death of one patient and then move to the next patient. And, as I described before, nurses are servants so they step right in and they, they do this day in and day out and don’t think twice about it,” she said.
Thankfully, May said with the slight drop in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, nurses hope the lag in patients will provide some respite from the everlasting suffering in the intensive care unit of hospitals.
“As we step back, as we’ve seen, somewhat of a decline comparatively, then it’s almost like a post-traumatic stress, as the nurses, they during the height of the pandemic and even still today, they jump in and they did what they had to do because that’s their calling and now that they have time to step back and process all of those things, especially the mental components of it and the data, it’s created an alternate challenge. Now, as we start some of that recovery process,” she added.
Ballad Health reports it has invested over $11.4 million in COVID-19 related pay incentives and over $18 million in pay adjustments over the last three years, but they say the nursing shortage continues.
Ballad Health reported it committed more than $100 million over 10 years to increase nursing wages for frontline nursing team positions.
This investment was one step taken to address the national nursing shortage, with the U.S. federal government projecting, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortfall of 800,000 nurses in 2020. This particular wage increase applied to a variety of nursing positions, including acute care registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPN), certified nursing assistants (CNAs) whose primary responsibility is direct inpatient, the hospital system reported to News Channel 11.
“There have been financial incentives for current employees and raises there have been two different rounds of pay increases were for nursing team. A component of nursing is not just obviously the money because there’s not enough money to pay nurses for what they give emotionally and mentally on a daily basis, but from a career ladder and career development standpoint, we provide opportunities through a career ladder program where they can advance their career on three different levels through involvement of committees, leading committees personal certification and growth and development. We also various specialties of nursing have certifications that elevate your level. As a nurse, nurse areas such as ICU, med surge, ER, operating room, and as Ballad, we pay for nurses to take that certification. Previously nurses had to pay for that out of pocket, And those exams are $500 in more each,” May said.
Retaining talent is not the only way health systems hope to address the nursing shortage.
“There has been a nursing shortage for a number of years now, and it has been a challenge we’ve seen that nurses have had to work longer hours, maybe even mandatory overtime with the pandemic,” Kayla Norman, clinical director of ETSU Health said.
“I would say it’s probably a combination of maybe people choosing not to go into nursing. At ETSU, we do have a pretty large nursing program, of course you have to have nurses to teach nurses. So getting those faculty members to come into the field to come to the university, to serve as teachers for our nurses as a challenge. Also, you know, within the hospital. With the increased number of patients that increases the need for nurses, and unfortunately the pandemic has increased that, as far as things that are being done for the nursing shortage, there are recruitment efforts I can speak to that you know when at ETSU, in particular, but there are recruitment efforts within the hospital systems and that sort of thing to not only recruit nurses to work for us but also to keep those nurses to retain them.”
Many nurses aging into retirement during the pandemic jumped at the opportunity to escape the pandemic, nurses told News Channel 11. But not all of them.
“I know that at ETSU in particular we get have quite a few number of faculty and staff who did retire, but the interesting thing about the pandemic is we actually saw nurses come out of retirement to help out and fill those gaps in care, and those gaps in me that we had within the hospital systems as well as within the school systems in the field of nursing, so kind of a mix yes people retired but also we see people come out of retirement to help with caring for those who were sick,” Norman explained.
According to nursing students, health systems begin the recruitment process on day one of nursing school orientation.
“A lot of it starts with working while we’re actually still in school. So different programs will have nursing internship kind of programs or they’ll have different opportunities that you can actually start working while you’re in nursing school and get patient experience. I know one through Ballad Health is that they offer a scholarship program so you work for them while you’re in school and then afterwards you have signed on to work for their hospital system for a certain period of time. So they have a variety of different ways where they’re kind of trying to advertise to different students and stuff like that from, you know, financial stuff to the opportunity to get patient experience, and that sort of thing,” Taylor Owen, junior ETSU nursing student said.
To those considering nursing as a profession, Owen said “just go for it.”
“We look at heroes as like the Marvel characters like Captain America and all these different things like that. And I looked at it a lot through the lens of like soldiers and that sort of thing but when I started interacting with real nurses in the hospital setting. I started realizing how deep I guess the word heroism goes, and just to see individuals who, if you just saw them walking down the street, you might not think that they were anything that special but in that setting when they’re taking care of people, it’s incredible to see, and they deserve to be celebrated and, and some of the most dedicated, hardworking people that would do anything to take care of your loved one, or my loved one if they were in the hospital like it’s, it’s amazing,” he said.
There are also incentives within health systems for beginner nurses, as well as retaining employment in that position.
Ballad Health offers a registered nursing scholarship. To be eligible, the student must have been accepted into an accredited registered nurse program. Money is granted to students to help pay for the cost of tuition and standard fees, less other scholarships and grants, with the agreement the student will work for Ballad Health upon graduation.
Based on the amount of money the student receives, there is a forgiveness schedule:
- A. Less than $5,000 received requires an 18-month work commitment to Ballad Health.
- B. $5,000 to $10,000 received requires a three-year work commitment to Ballad Health.
- C. $10,000 or greater received requires a five-year work commitment to Ballad Health. The service time starts when the student is a Ballad Health full-time team member and has obtained their RN license.