Merry Fort, a registered nurse who lives in Macon, has seen nursing shortages before. But, she said, “I’ve never seen it like this.”
Fort works for a company that supplies “travel nurses’’ — hired to work in a specific location for a limited amount of time — and temp nurses to hospitals.
A shortage of nurses is gripping Georgia, and all hospitals are looking for RNs, she said. One key factor fueling Georgia’s nursing shortage, Fort adds, is that the state’s population “is growing fairly rapidly, and our elderly population is growing fairly rapidly.”
Hospital systems across Georgia confirm to Georgia Health News that there’s a shortage of RNs in the state.
“There is absolutely a nursing shortage in Georgia, and a larger shortage is looming on the horizon,’’ said Ninfa Saunders, president and CEO of Navicent Health in Macon. “This shortage seems to be one of the most significant and continues to worsen.’’
There is not an equivalent nationwide shortage, said Peter Buerhaus, a health care workforce expert at Montana State University. He said there are scattered reports of local shortages, “but not a uniform overall national outbreak as we used to see back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s.’’
Georgia has about 69,000 employed registered nurses, who average about $63,000 in pay annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While some experts say a lack of nurses is a perennial problem in Georgia, others see the current hiring period as particularly bad, and they expect things to get worse.
“I have been in nursing for over 30 years,’’ said Jacqueline Herd, chief nursing officer at Grady Health System in Atlanta. “Those of us who have been in practice for a while have seen nursing shortages come and go. However, this is expected to be the worst ever.”
Meanwhile, Fort, who works for Accountable Healthcare Staffing, sees a strong national demand for travel nurses. Her company has up to 11,000 job openings now, she said. “Historically, it’s very high.’’
The RN supply problem here and elsewhere is driven by several factors, nurses say.
One issue is the retirement of older nurses.
Houston Healthcare now has 850 nurses working at its seven facilities, but it is looking to hire 40 more, chief nursing officer Melinda Hartley said.
The shortage of nurses has worsened in the past couple years since the economy improved, prompting many to retire, Hartley said.
A good economy can contribute to a nursing shortage. Hartley said she’s noticed the trend worsen over the past two years.
“We started seeing more of our RNs retire because RNs ages 50 and older make up about 44 percent nationally of the (nurse) population,” Hartley said. “That is one of the reasons why we’re having to look to replace RNs.”
Repeated attempts to reach Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon for comment were unsuccessful.
Nurses working in hospitals are finding the job tougher than ever, something that is also driving retirements.
RNs working at the bedside are dealing with the reality of America’s aging population. The typical patient is likely to be older and sicker than in the past.
“Patients are living longer, getting sicker and, in many cases, suffering from multiple chronic illnesses,” said Jill Case-Wirth, chief nursing executive at WellStar Health System, the state’s largest hospital system.
“The baby boomer population (people born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s) is aging and requiring more health care services – orthopedics, cardiology, pulmonary,’’ said Janis Dubow, chief nursing officer at Northside Hospital.
Another factor in the nurse shortage is an increased number of job opportunities for nurses outside the hospital.
“In the past, most nurses would provide care at the bedside for their entire career,’’ said Karen Boyer, vice president of patient care services at Memorial Health in Savannah. “Today, there are many more diverse opportunities available to nurses. These include telemedicine, consulting, administrative, advanced practice, and more.”
Not enough teachers for aspiring nurses
In a time when more nurses are needed, many nursing schools don’t have enough faculty to turn out more graduates, experts say.
“We see 80,000 students turned away from nursing schools every year due to schools not having enough faculty,’’ said Denise Ray, chief nurse executive for Piedmont Healthcare, which operates seven hospitals in Georgia.
Finding nurses who want teach the profession is hard, she said.
“To teach nursing, you must have a doctorate, and the pay isn’t competitive with what nurses can earn working elsewhere. As nursing faculty members also begin to retire, what incentives are there for others to step in and teach the next generations of nurses?’’
Recruitment is a constant battle, with some hospitals even offering sign-on bonuses to attract RNs.
“Atlanta is one of the top three most competitive markets for health care,’’ said Lori Anne Roberson, manager of talent acquisition at Northside. “I’ve been in nurse recruitment for 18 years and have never seen it more competitive than it is right now.”
While larger systems are constantly recruiting, rural hospitals have difficulty keeping nurses, because bigger facilities hire them for higher pay, said Jimmy Lewis of HomeTown Health, an association of rural hospitals in Georgia.
Recently, the Georgia College School of Nursing received $178,588 from the Georgia Department of Public Health to help address health care shortages throughout the state. Funding covers the course and books for nurses employed by the health department from Macon, Athens, Savannah, Albany, Rome and other areas across Georgia.
Phoebe Putney Health System, based in Albany, says rural areas have a lower per-capita supply of registered nurses.
“This impact is greatly felt by Phoebe, a health system which serves a large rural population of the state,” Amanda Clements, Phoebe spokeswoman, said.
Many hospitals have their own programs to recruit and retain nurses.
Some give scholarships to nursing students. Hospitals also offer “externships” — employing undergraduate nursing students in the hospital in other jobs during the summer.
“We’ve found that the best training occurs while our externs are working side-by-side (with) our experienced staff,’’ said Bill Ryan, director of talent acquisition at Gwinnett Medical Center in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville.
Many offer nurse residency programs for new graduates.
Emory Healthcare says it’s also establishing specialty residencies “to on-board RNs into specialty areas focusing on nurse engagement and patient safety.”
“Piedmont is accepting more new grads than ever before through its nurse residency program,’’ said Ray, of the Atlanta-based Piedmont system. “In 2016 alone, we welcomed 300 to the program, which was designed to make sure new nurses are fully prepared and ready to take on the challenges that come with being a hospital nurse.”
Statewide, the future RN supply looms as a huge challenge.
Fort recommends encouraging more young people to go into nursing. “We need to start in middle schools, encouraging males and females, encouraging a diverse group to go into the nursing profession.”
GHN writer Judi Kanne and Telegraph writer Laura Corley contributed to this report.
Georgia Health News is a nonprofit, independent news organization devoted to covering health care in the state. Follow Georgia Health News on Facebook and on Twitter @gahealthnews.