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Nurses Nursing Grievances

Union demands action on staffing shortages in hospitals

SUNDAY, May 6 (HealthScout) -- A shortage of nurses in U.S. hospitals threatens the health and safety of patients and nurses, a national nurses union says.

The United American Nurses (UAN) contends that the tiring and stressful hospital conditions faced by overworked nurses means there's nothing to celebrate during National Nurses Week, which starts today. And it's demanding that hospitals, legislators and Congress take action to solve the staffing crisis.

"It's going to continue to get worse if nothing is done," says Suzanne Martin, UAN's associate director of communications. UAN is the labor union affiliate of the American Nurses Association (ANA).

If current trends continue, in 10 years the demand for registered nurses across the country will exceed availability by about 20 percent, Martin says. That means one in five patients will not receive care from a registered nurse. Those figures come from the ANA.

There were 2.2 million registered nurses working in health-care settings in 2000, and 59.1 percent of them worked in hospitals, according to a report released in February by the Bureau of Health Professions, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The report says the average annual salary of a full-time registered nurse last year was $46,782. But average salaries, adjusted for inflation, have remained basically unchanged since 1992, according to the report.

Stagnant salaries are just one of many reasons behind the nurse shortage. Martin says an aging population of "baby boomers" and advances in medical care and treatment that increase life expectancy mean there are more patients in hospitals.

Working conditions are another factor. Excessive mandatory overtime and health and safety risks, such as needlestick and back injuries, have convinced many nurses to find better-paying, less-stressful and safer jobs outside of hospitals, the union says.

The staffing shortage puts patients at risk because there aren't enough nurses to oversee patient treatment, care and recovery, the UAN claims.

Unless something is done, the staffing shortfall is only going to get worse. About half of all nurses are in their 50s and many will retire within the next 10 years, Martin says.

Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association, agrees with Martin's prediction that the nursing shortage will worsen during the coming decade.

"The existing supply [of nurses] is heading toward retirement and new recruits are not being produced at the desired level. So it could produce quite a problem in the near future," Levinson says.

"Obviously, patient care is likely to be compromised if there isn't adequate professional staff," he adds.

Using cheaper, unlicensed workers may be acceptable when those workers are well-supervised and doing simple, routine tasks, Levinson says. But, he adds, there's "evidence" that these workers are being called upon to do demanding and technical tasks that exceed their training.

Should patients be apprehensive when they check into a hospital?

"I don't know how much people should be concerned. But nurses working 12- to 14-hour shifts are certainly not as fresh as they might be by the end of those shifts," Levinson says.

What To Do

To get an overview of the current state of nursing, take a look at the report from the Bureau of Health Professions. You can find out more about nursing at the American Nurses Association.

For more HealthScout stories on nursing, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Suzanne Martin, associate director of communications, United American Nurses, Washington. D.C.; Richard Levinson, M.D., D.P.A., associate executive director, American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.
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