A Crisis in the Making
This mass exodus has been decades in the making. Of the approximately 155,000 registered nurses who join the profession each year, as many as half leave the bedside within two years.
In many ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. America’s almost 4 million nurses fill dangerous positions, and during the pandemic, more nurses have lost their lives on the front lines than any other health care worker. One recent study reports that nurses have accounted for 32% of all health-care-worker–related deaths owing to COVID, and that nurses have lost their lives at nearly twice the rate of physicians. It’s also no secret that nurses are often unsung relative to doctors, and often underpaid relative to the long hours and dangerous environments in which they work. The pandemic is proving that nurses are the backbone of our country’s health care system—but it is also demonstrating the many ways in which we fall short in supporting them.
For far too long, health care systems have simply seen nurses as a commodity, a never-ending resource—and as a result, those systems have done little to invest in the careers of nurses. Investments into the profession historically seldom went beyond staffing numbers at the bedside, with little thought to career progression, leadership development, or educational opportunities that would enable nurses to have equal opportunities to rise to health care leadership positions. In fact, as demands for health care have increased across the United States, there has actually been decreased investment in the nursing profession by health care systems that previously used to pay to educate nurses—which has placed the onus of continuing education costs on the backs of those who chose nursing and advanced nursing degrees.