In Jacksonville and across the nation, the health-care industry can't find enough nurses, and with baby boomers growing older, the shortfall couldn't come at a worse time.
Wanted: registered nurses. Fast.
The health care industry is mired in a nurse shortage that experts fear will be a problem for years to come.
Recent reports by hospital associations in Florida and Georgia and by national health care publications have sounded the alarm that the country needs more, and better trained, nurses.
Health care has weathered nurse shortages before. The most recent was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But experts say this one is different.
"It's very different because we have an aging population, the baby boomers are going to hit retirement in several years, and it's clear there aren't enough nurses to take care of the aging population," said Sue Ellen Pinkerton, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Shands Jacksonville hospital.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicted a 21 percent increase in the need for nurses nationwide from 1998 to 2008.
In Florida, the state Department of Labor and Employment Security predicted the demand for registered nurses will grow by 29 percent in the next decade. Yet the state had nearly 57,000 fewer licensed nurses in 1999 than in 1998.
"Nurses in their 50s tend to work less because the work's very hard, so you don't have them as full-time workers," Pinkerton said. "There simply are less and less nurses in the younger age groups."
A recent survey of Georgia hospitals found a 13 percent vacancy rate for RN positions. Some hospitals are sending patients to other facilities when they don't have enough staff, said Vi Naylor, executive vice president of the Georgia Hospital Association.
"That's one of the reasons we've jumped on it [the issue] as quickly as we have," Naylor said. "We don't want it to get to the point where it affects quality of care."
Experts say various factors are contributing to the shortage:
-- The number of nursing jobs is expanding, with more opportunities in long-term, home care and consulting, and the growth of programs like transplant centers.
-- Women -- about 94 percent of RNs -- enjoy more opportunities in other professions.
-- People don't think nursing is a stable job because many hospitals cut their RN staffs based on erroneous predictions that managed care would keep people healthier and out of hospitals.
"Those predictions did not play out, and hospitals that laid off nurses are now scurrying, competing to have qualified nurses return," said Kathleen Ann Long, dean of the University of Florida's College of Nursing and president-elect of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. "This is a very serious, long-term shortage of well-educated nurses."
-- Managed care also has reduced the level of job satisfaction for nurses, nursing associations and experts contend.
Nurses have been given more responsibility for supervising less-trained nursing assistants, who are providing more of the hands-on care for patients.
But at the same time, patients have shorter hospital stays, making it harder for nurses to see and appreciate the outcome of their work.
Without a reversal of the shortage in RNs, some experts fear hospitals, home nursing agencies and other health care providers won't be able to serve all the people who need care.
There is also a fear that nursing positions will be filled with people who don't have enough training and experience to properly care for patients, said Dan Mezibov, director of of public affairs for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
The Florida Hospital Association said in a report issued last month that nurses face more paperwork and more responsibility for making patient care decisions, "often at odds with a nurse's training or instinct. …