Commentary: SC nursing shortage could worsen unless we invest in education

If you’ve recently been a patient in a hospital or seen your physician, you most likely experienced the impact of our nationwide nursing shortage. Longer wait times, delayed care and even patient harm can all result from an inadequate number of nurses to meet rising demand.

South Carolina already has too few nurses and is expected to be among the four states with the worst per capita nursing shortage by 2030, when our state will have an estimated 10,000 vacancies. It’s a problem that will only worsen if we fail to attract more qualified people to the profession.

Yet despite our nation’s urgent need, our nursing schools face serious challenges. According to a troubling report, the United States must more than double the number of new graduates entering and staying in the nursing workforce every year for the next three years to meet our needs.

Meeting that growing nursing workforce demand is hampered by various challenges, but two stick out to me: a shortage of nurse educators in our colleges and universities, and a limited number of direct-care clinical opportunities to prepare students.

I recently spoke with two potential nursing students who had just graduated from high school and chosen nursing as their desired profession. One planned to apply to a state university and the other to a local community college. What struck me during these conversations was the level of effort and preparation they both committed to ensuring admittance to a nursing program.

One was completing her dual high school and associate degree while also studying for the required admissions test.

The other applicant was finishing her prerequisites for admission, dedicating a significant amount of time and energy to ensure her grades remained competitive for the admission process. I was encouraged by the efforts both applicants described to secure their admission to nursing ­­school. They are not alone.

Unfortunately, though many enthusiastic and qualified applicants are eager to pursue a nursing career, many are not admitted due to a shortage of nurse educators and limited clinical spots.

In fact, shortages have left about 1 in 10 nurse faculty positions vacant, forcing admissions offices to turn away nearly 92,000 qualified applications in 2021. The problem will only worsen unless the nursing faculty shortage is addressed.

Nursing faculty are highly educated and work tirelessly to maintain their clinical expertise and theoretical knowledge of evidence-based practice while helping their students succeed. While nursing education is a very satisfying career, there is a significant salary gap between nurses in clinical practice and academia, drawing people away from the classroom.

State and federal initiatives should be championed to address this inequity, including competitive faculty salary packages. In addition, hospitals should provide collaborative practice incentives for faculty to maintain clinical expertise, with colleges providing faculty release time for clinical practice. When institutions invest in nursing faculty, they invest in the future of health care and their own success.

Another problem compounding the nursing shortage is the lack of clinical sites to prepare students for direct patient care. Without access to more inpatient, clinic and community clinical sites, graduates will not be adequately prepared to enter the field. Therefore, more enhanced clinical learning experiences — like those created though university-provider partnerships — should be designed to accommodate an increased number of students. Additionally, in-person clinical experiences should be supplemented with technology and virtual simulation to further bolster students’ skillsets — especially when access to clinical sites is limited. South Carolina leaders should look for ways to incentivize and make these partnerships possible.

As a long-time nurse educator, I cannot stress enough the importance of educating the nation’s next generation of nurses. There are creative solutions, including those that foster partnerships with health care providers and nursing schools to further our missions and, more importantly, meet community needs. The time to support tomorrow’s well-prepared nursing workforce is now.

Debbie Lyles, Ph.D., R.N., CNE, is the director of consulting at ATI Nursing Education. She lives in Greenville.

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