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The two years since COVID-19 was first detected in America have ushered in profound change to all industries that come into contact with the public. Education, commerce, and even restaurants have changed business models and delivery systems to support social distancing and hands-free processes. Healthcare has also embraced changes, such as increasing the use of telehealth where possible.
At the same time, nursing care during COVID-19 has been pushed to its limits with overcrowded hospitals, unprecedented death rates, a lack of PPE, mandatory overtime, staffing shortages and a perceived lack of administrative support.
The crisis has thrust nursing into the spotlight, bringing much praise but not enough change to a profession already in crisis. Today, nursing could very well make 2022 the year of change needed to address the systemic issues that have plagued nursing since before the pandemic and the new issues that have arisen as a result.
What awaits us?
Here are some of the issues to watch in nursing in 2022 and some advice for nurses.
Continued job growth
Already in the depths of a nursing shortage that was set to worsen even before COVID-19 became a factor, the current staffing crisis shows no signs of abating. Prior to the pandemic, a shortage of nursing faculty, an aging population and a large number of nurses reaching retirement age were factors that aggravated the nursing shortage. 2022 adds to the number of nurses exhausted by the pandemic. A recent McKinsey & Company report found that nearly one-third of registered nurses are considering leaving their patient care role. There will be no shortage of jobs in the future.
Increased home health
The aging baby boomer population could increase the number of older Americans needing nursing home care by 75%. Yet many are choosing to age in place, increasing the need for in-home nurses. And again, COVID has further heightened the need. Demand will increase even more if the Choose the Home Care Act of 2021 passes, greatly expanding Medicare patients’ access to home health services.
Increase in online education
One of the nursing trends accelerated by the pandemic is the shift to online education. Distance learning programs were already popular options for RN-BSN bridging programs; the pandemic has extended e-learning to other programs to reduce COVID transmission. Additionally, some research shows that e-learning has benefits such as better retention that supports online or blended learning as a valid post-pandemic model.
Application for training and higher education
Better education improves outcomes for nurses and patients. A report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) found several studies linking decreased mortality to an increase in the number of BSN-educated nurses. The same AACN report found that most employers prefer BSN-educated nurses. As of 2021, more nurses were seeking bachelor’s (or higher) degrees than associate’s degrees to meet growing demand. Additionally, nurses with a bachelor’s degree have more opportunities and higher salaries and are qualified for advanced roles like nurse manager.
Staff support and well-being
One of the greatest failures of the pandemic has been the unimaginable burden on medical personnel. Stress, burnout, trauma and lack of support are driving nurses out of patient care in unprecedented numbers. According to an ebn report, 500,000 nurses will leave patient care this year, a number the pandemic has accelerated by nearly 20 years. Failures of staffing models, crisis preparedness and support for overstretched staff have created a mental health crisis that has been largely ignored during the pandemic. The number of nurses leaving patient care should be a wake-up call for health systems to prioritize the well-being of their staff.
COVID-19 surges have caused a wave of traveling nurses that has only grown as poor working conditions and frustration have driven more nurses to leave their posts for lucrative travel assignments. Travel nursing grew 35% in 2020 and is expected to grow another 40%. The freedom to choose when and where to work, to take time off between assignments, and much higher salaries are appealing to many pandemic-exhausted nurses. With the number of nurses leaving bedside care over the next few years, traveling nurses will continue to be in demand as health systems grapple with the growing shortage of nurses.
As is often the case, we must look to the past to understand our future needs. The pandemic has profoundly changed a health system already in crisis, which cannot survive without nurses. New nurses entering the workforce and those who are not so new but are looking for a change will have many opportunities ahead. Education and self-advocacy are essential in this market of job seekers. There will also be opportunities to advocate for change in the profession as the healthcare industry struggles to emerge from the pandemic. Now is the time to make our voice heard.