Maryland hospitals facing 'the most critical staffing shortage in recent memory'

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Across Maryland's hospitals, one in every four nursing positions is vacant.

The Maryland Hospital Association projects that the state will need 13,800 more registered nurses and 9,200 additional licensed practical nurses by 2035.

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And it's not just nurses. Hospitals also are reporting shortages of respiratory therapists, laboratory technicians and several other other skilled workers.

It's "the most critical staffing shortage in recent memory," according to the Maryland Hospital Association.

According to a report released Aug. 8, the shortfalls are going to get worse before they get better.

“Workforce challenges predated the COVID-19 pandemic, but the situation is now alarming,” Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said in a news release issued last week. “Hospitals are essential to a vibrant society. Any threat to the workforce of our 60 hospitals and health systems threatens the health and wellness of all Marylanders and stability of our state’s core functions. We cannot take for granted that our excellent health care workforce will always be there."

Officials at Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown, Md., and Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Md., report lower, but still troubling, vacancy rates in their nursing corps.

To help fill out their rosters, hospitals have hired "travel nurses," who are paid to go where they are needed. They tend to make higher hourly rates.

Hospitals also have raised pay and offered other incentives for staff nurses.

Meritus, for example, is offering a $30,000 sign-on bonus for certain nursing positions, Carrie Adams, chief operating officer at Meritus Health, wrote in an email. Meritus also is offering a range of sign-on bonuses for other areas, such as respiratory care, medical assistants and environmental service workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a registered nurse in Maryland is $82,660. Specific salaries vary by region and employer, and by the nurse's experience and responsibilities.

More money won't solve the long-term problem, officials said.

"There are only so many nurses to go around. They can only pick up so many shifts," said Scott Rose, director of director of inpatient services and cardiopulmonary services at Atlantic General.

So hospitals and the association are looking at longer-range solutions to get more people into the nursing pipeline.

How did we get a shortage of nurses?

The nursing shortage has a variety of causes, the report states.

Nurses are leaving the profession because of stress, burnout and more career choices outside of acute hospital care.

In a survey, 62% of nurses thought about leaving the field recently, according to the report. Feeling "overworked, burned out, unappreciated" was the No. 1 reason for nearly 40% of the respondents.

As in other professions, demographics also play a role. Generally speaking, as more experienced nurses retire or leave the profession, there are not enough new nurses to replace them.

A global pandemic didn't help.

"COVID really sent us over the edge the past two years," said Rose at Atlantic General.

He said his departments run a vacancy rate of 20% to 25% for nurses, just shy of the state's 25% average.

At Meritus, the average vacancy rate is 17%, Adams wrote in the email.

"While the pandemic amplified the nursing shortage, hospitals across the state and country know this is nothing new or an issue that will be eliminated soon thereafter," she wrote.

How do we solve the problem?

The workforce report focuses on four key areas, with specific proposals within each area. The areas include:

  • Expanding Maryland’s workforce pipeline: One of the specific ideas includes launching a "green to blue" campaign so retired military personnel with health care experience can move into civilian roles in a more timely fashion.

  • Removing barriers to health care education: The report suggests adding more nursing clinical sites and faculty members. Throughout the nation in 2020, according to the report, "80,521 qualified applicants were not accepted at schools of nursing due primarily to the shortage of clinical sites, faculty, and resource constraints."

  • Retaining the health care workforce: Some proposals include more flexible scheduling, measures to prevent violence against health care workers, and addressing child care issues. "Nearly 25%of Maryland nurses said having caregiver support for children and the elderly would keep them from leaving in the next few years," the report states.

  • Leveraging talent with new care models: This area encompasses a range of proposals, from eliminating "extraneous" administrative tasks and documentation to expanding virtual health care opportunities.

In addition to the steps recommended in the study, hospitals are launching their own longer-term measures to retain and attract nurses.

Meritus, for example, has taken some of the training into its own hands.

"Through our nurse residency program, Meritus is focused on increasing the pool of new, excellently trained talent available," Adams wrote in the email. "In the most recent cohort, Meritus recruited over 40 new graduate nurses."

Meritus also offers continuing education opportunities, tuition reimbursement, nurse leader internships, nursing certification, precepting and mentoring, she wrote.

Those measures are in addition to the salary and sign-on bonusess.

"Our nurses are amazing and these are the many ways we value their dedication," Adams wrote.

"For patients, this means that their care, from the moment they arrive at Meritus to when they are discharged, is not impacted. Our frontline teams continue to provide the highest quality care."

At Atlantic General, Rose echoed those remarks.

"If you're genuinely sick, come to the hospital," he said.

A nurse by training, Rose said he also wanted to offer words of encouragement for people considering the field as a career.

"Nursing is a great, rewarding field," he said. "It's been great for me."

Mike Lewis covers business, the economy and other issues. Follow Mike on Twitter: @MiLewis.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Maryland hospitals face shortages of nurses, other professionals