There was a global shortage of nurses … and then the pandemic hit. Researchers, including a Charles Sturt academic, investigate how COVID-19 has affected an already struggling nursing industry and what can be done to save it.
By Discipline Lead in Health Management and Leadership and Associate Professor in Nursing Judith Anderson with the Charles Sturt University School of Nursing, Paramedicine and Healthcare Sciences with Violeta Lopez, Sancia West and Michelle Cleary.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on nurses. There has been a global shortage of nurses for some time and the stress of dealing with the pandemic may extend that even further. We need more government and community support for the nurses that we have and the student nurses who will help to fill this gap.
Recent research overseas has confirmed what we are finding in Australia, as described in a recent publication about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on nursing shortages worldwide.
The Australian Department of Health predictions on the nursing workforce prior to the pandemic predicted a shortfall of 85,000 nurses by 2025. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase that unless further action is taken to prevent nurses from leaving the profession.
With the increasing number of people in each Australian state and territory needing to be hospitalised due to COVID-19, more pressure is already being put on our nurses. There were 150 people that required hospitalisation in NSW due to COVID-19 on Friday 10 December 2021, compared to 2246 on Wednesday 12 January 2022. Of that number, 175 are currently being treated in the ICU. The significant change in a month, a combination of extra high-risk patients and no new nursing staff will surely take a toll. The health care system was struggling prior to this influx of patients, particularly in specialty areas which require nurses to have additional qualifications (such as ICU), and those areas that have difficulty attracting staff such as rural and remote areas and the aged care sector.
When patients first begin to feel unwell and go to a hospital, they are often not sure what is causing them to feel sick. If they are diagnosed with COVID-19 after having been treated in hospital, then entire shifts of nurses may need to isolate until they get negative test results. In small rural communities, this can be a large portion of the workforce. In larger hospitals, this can be a large portion of specialised nurses e.g., surgical nurses, emergency department nurses.
Although we look after patients, no matter what is making them sick, when something is as contagious as COVID-19, nurses are more exposed than the general population and therefore more likely to catch COVID-19 themselves. The long-lasting effects of COVID-19 can lead to further shortages of nurses if they are unable to work for long periods of time.
Nurses, like other people, are also afraid that they may accidentally spread COVID-19 to their families or to other patients that they are looking after. This can impact their mental health and even result in them leaving nursing altogether.
Although many of our student nurses are keen to get out and into the workforce, some are feeling the same stresses and having second thoughts, even while they are still students. As we try to move as much teaching online as possible to avoid further infections, some students struggle with the changes and we struggle to make classes smaller to teach those things that we just can’t teach a nursing student online.
Heroism and self-sacrifice are signs that the workforce is under stress. More support from the government and community are required to ensure that these are not needed. Nursing students are putting in a great effort to learn how to do the job well and universities are supporting them. They are being welcomed into hospitals to begin long careers. We need to care for them just as they are learning to care for us.
The full research article is available online.