My older sister is a medical assistant here in Connecticut. It’s a demanding job, and I can see the toll it takes on her. She recently told me of a stressful encounter she had with an adult patient with Down syndrome. The doctor ordered a blood draw to run some necessary tests, and this put the patient in distress. My sister attempted to calm the situation, but very little helped as the patient thrashed in the chair attempting to fight off the needle.
Eventually she was able to calm the patient down enough and take the blood draw. But when she was finished and sent the test to the lab, she was confronted by an angry doctor who was frustrated that taking care of a single patient took so long. They were now behind schedule, and multiple patients waited in the waiting room for their appointments. He questioned her abilities as a medical assistant, and was frustrated by her “lack of time efficiency.” All my sister could do was apologize, and attempt to catch up.
She felt penalized for having taken the time that was absolutely necessary with a vulnerable patient. Just one more situation in a job where she’s overworked, underpaid, and never appreciated for all her hard work.
Medical professionals across the state and across the country are suffering the same feeling of burnout and a lack of time to properly care for patients. In fact the national turnover rate for nurses has reached 37% for some specialties. A nursing shortage was announced as long ago as 2012. Federal estimates say by 2025 there could be a national shortage of more than 78,000 registered nurses. As of August 2022, Connecticut has 9.52 nurses per 1000 population, making the nursing shortage a major concern here. Nurses are overworking themselves in order to meet the demands of patients from a shrinking workforce pool.
These problems were only exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. The pandemic forced hospitals to cut their nursing staff. Many hospitals had to fire or force nurses into early retirement in order to stay afloat during the pandemic. Therefore, the remaining nurses had to pick up the remaining shifts and overwork themselves, with little to no pay increase. The resulting increase in hours in a stressful position or transition to critical care of COVID patients caused severe stress and fatigue in nursing personnel.
More stress and less time to interact with patients leads to bypassing safety protocols, a breakdown of communication, and reduced job performance resulting in an increase in medical errors.
Connecticut lawmakers are currently debating a bill that would mandate staff-to-patient ratios in hospital settings. They are proposing specific numbers such as a four-to-one patient-to-nurse ratio in emergency rooms, among others. However, the Connecticut Hospital Association is moving against the bill saying mandated staffing ratios would “exacerbate the state’s workforce problems, undermine nurses and healthcare providers, cause delays in care, and weaken crisis response.”
While the bill might be a good step to addressing the nursing shortage within each hospital, it does not address the shrinking nursing pool as more nurses retire and fewer enter the field. America is faced with an aging population which increases the amount of patients nurses are seeing while also pushing qualified nurses closer to retirement.
From 2011 to 2019 there was a 73% increase in the population of those aged over 65 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the number will continue to rise reaching 73 million people aged over 65 by 2030. In Connecticut, more than 820,000 people, or 23% of Connecticut’s population, are aged 60 and over.
Compounding the problem, 52% of registered nurses in Connecticut are over 50 and close to retirement. A national 2015 study predicted the retirement of over one million nurses between now and 2030.
In order to become a certified registered nurse in Connecticut, students must earn an associates or bachelor’s degree in nursing. However, the class must be taught by previous nursing professionals who are already in short supply. Around the nation in 2020, over 80,000 qualified nursing applicants were denied from higher education programs due to lack of qualified faculty, clinical study sites, classroom space, and budget constraints. In Connecticut that meant 7,000 qualified applicants couldn’t be trained.
The state needs to address both the current and future nursing shortage if lawmakers want to address this crisis. While nursing ratios address the current situation and are necessary for patient safety, we need a plan to train and retain more nurses in Connecticut to decrease the patient to provider rate.
We should support our nurses and other medical professionals and stand with them in their fight for efficiency of patient care and reduction of an already stressful work environment. These are the people who put their lives on the line during a global pandemic, it’s time we showed them how grateful we are to have them.
Kendall Holland is a junior at Sacred Heart University, majoring in Health Science.