In the first article in this series, I wrote about my recent healthcare journey and how it lined up (and didn’t) with the strategic advice we give our healthcare clients. In part two of the series, I discussed the importance of an outstanding consumer experience — not just the digital experience — and how it’s more important than ever in an age when consumers can be more informed about their choices for healthcare.
I mentioned before that I had to stay longer than usual in the surgical unit because the staff couldn’t find a room for me elsewhere. After a couple of days in the surgical unit, they finally arranged one, and I got transferred up four floors to start recovering.
After my nurse got me settled, I went for a walk around the unit with my physical therapist. I was struck by how quiet it was. Then I started looking around, and I realized why I wasn’t hearing much: The unit’s rooms were mostly empty.
“What’s up with this?” I asked the therapist, motioning toward the fifth empty room we walked by. “I was down in the surgical unit for days waiting for a room. It looks like I could’ve had my pick.”
The therapist looked away from me. She looked a bit sad but mostly embarrassed. “It’s not that we don’t have rooms,” she explained. “We have tons of rooms. We just don’t have enough nurses to care for all the patients who need the rooms.”
If physicians are the brain of a healthcare organization, then nurses are surely its heart. They do the hardest work of patient care — far more than a quick drive-by check-in a physician may do while on rounds. From the highly technical, such as infusing medications, to the mundane, such as help with bathing and bedsores, nurses do it all.
The business sense of nursing
That’s why it’s so stressful on nurses to know there simply aren’t enough of them to get the job done. As CNBC reported in 2019, nursing was the third-highest in-demand career field. The desperate need for high-quality nurses has only grown since then, fueled by the impossible stresses and demands of trending to patients with COVID-19.
We’ve all seen the stories of nurses getting cheers at shift change and restaurants offering them free food or drinks for their service. While those are nice gestures, they’re not enough.
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Forward-thinking healthcare organizations are already prioritizing the recruitment of skilled nurses, both to replenish their staffing losses and to gear up for the kind of revenue recovery they need to re-establish their market positions after the pandemic. Other providers need to follow suit quickly or risk getting left behind by competitors who are better positioned in today’s industry.
Nursing isn’t just a business need
But there’s a human need that transcends the financial implications of the nursing shortage. Today’s nurses just have too much on their plates to provide the quality of care their patients deserve.
During my hospital stay, I learned the ideal ratio for patients to nurses at this particular facility was 6 to 1 — six patients for each nurse. For a few days during a rush period, the actual ratio was 12 to 1. How many patients were calling the nurses’ station for late medication or help to the bathroom during that time whose calls went unanswered?
When nurses get overworked, patients notice, and they can lash out irrationally. One afternoon, I was in my hospital bed, and I heard people yelling in the hallway. I wasn’t supposed to get up, so I waited until it was time for my afternoon medicine, which was remarkably late, to ask the nurse what had happened.
“Oh, the older lady in the room next door wanted to go home, and her nurse said she had to stay, so the lady punched her out,” she casually replied.
Punched out. A nurse. And I was afraid I was going to get kicked out of the hospital for forgetting to wear my face mask once during my daily physical therapy walk. Apparently, you can assault the staff, and they’ll still keep your bed warm for you.
Later that evening, near the 7:30 shift change, a call came through the phones all the nurses wear: “I’m looking for someone to stay until 11. Let me know.” My nurse seemed upset. I asked her what was wrong.
“That call,” she answered. “I could use the overtime. But 11 actually means midnight or 12:30. Probably 1 after I clean up. Then I live a half-hour away. Wouldn’t get to sleep until at least 1:30 and probably 2. Then I’m back tomorrow at 7 a.m., so I’d have to leave home at 6:30 at the latest. Have to get up earlier to take care of my husband and kids before I go. I just … I just …”
She looked guilty. I said, “Well, if you’re going to be my nurse tomorrow, I’d rather you have more than four hours’ worth of sleep.” I smiled, and she laughed. She left at her usual time. It was like she’d been asking permission to decline. But which nurse stayed? Which patients ended up with the sleep-deprived provider the next day?
Even the most dedicated and resilient among us can only bend so far before they break, and the healthcare industry is full of bent nurses — not to mention those who have already broken and departed. For the good of these professionals, as well as the patients in their care, nursing recruitment and retention has to be a top priority of healthcare organizations nationwide.
On the journey to healing
I didn’t develop the condition that sent me to the emergency department overnight. Like any patient, I’m navigating my journey of healing. I’m much better than I was, but I know it’s going to take time for me to fully recover.
Much like a recovering patient, the healthcare industry has suffered. The pandemic may have been the trigger for today’s most pressing concerns, but the overarching issues have been building for many years.
I have no doubt that the healthcare industry will heal and recover. It’s just going to take hard work and a sound strategy. But we can plan for better days ahead — together.