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The Tip of the Iceberg: Why there is No Quick Fix to New Mexico’s Nursing Shortage

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  Commentary: Our healthcare system is in crisis, both in New Mexico and nationwide.  The causes of the staffing shortage are complex and fixing the problem will require an urgent and holistic approach.

            In a recent KRWG interview, Dr. Alexa Doig, Director of the NMSU Nursing Program, spoke on the Nursing shortage. Dr. Doig expressed concerns about the dwindling numbers of Nurse Faculty, “Recruiting faculty is crucial... Our ability to grow is really dependent on our ability to recruit qualified nurse faculty.”

Dr. Doig makes an irrefutable point.  One million “baby boomer” Registered Nurses are expected to retire between 2020-2030, and many Nurse Educators and Managers chose to step down early due to the stress of COVID.  Qualified teachers for healthcare programs are essential for patient safety but adding more Nurse Faculty is nowhere near enough to fix the problem.

            The “nursing shortage” is just the tip of the iceberg.  Of the 22 million healthcare workers reported in 2021, an estimated 30 % are Registered Nurses.  The other 70 % are also in short supply, including Doctors, Physician Assistants, Diagnostic Technicians, Behavioral Health Clinicians, and Personal Care Aides, just to name a few.

While Registered Nurses play a critical role, the current interdisciplinary model requires that specialized workers collaborate for optimal patient care.  Indeed.com, a popular job search site, revealed the following data as of October 2021:

  • 1 New RN Resume for every 12 RN Jobs Posted in New Mexico
  • 1 New Surgical Tech Resume for every 4 Surgical Tech Jobs 
  • 0 New Physician Resumes for every 180 Physician Jobs
  • 1 Radiology Tech Resume for every 9 Radiology Tech Jobs

Factors including the aging baby boomer population, resignations due to COVID, lack of public awareness, high tuition costs and good old-fashioned burnout have all exacerbated the shortage. 

The interview with Dr. Doig also mentions that Nursing students currently provide hands-on help during Clinical Rotations, which are typically for observation and mentoring.  I recently spoke with a young woman in Albuquerque, who dropped out of nursing school after being told by current RN’s, “Don’t become a nurse!”  Burnout creates a vicious cycle, and as more staff buckle under the stress, conditions worsen for those who remain.

This problem must be approached holistically and with urgency to improve conditions for healthcare workers and patients.  Subsidized tuition and a collaborative marketing campaign between healthcare educational programs and government could go a long way towards enrolling new students.

Cost and accessibility remain barriers to entry.  A two-year RN program in New Mexico costs around $40,000, and scholarships and grants cover around 4 % to those who are eligible.  For many, the prospect of intensive coursework, a full-time job and other responsibilities is daunting.  The good news is there are other healthcare careers which offer shorter and less costly programs ranging from two to eighteen months.  The general public may be unaware of the perks of these careers, which include the opportunity to help others, flexibility, livable wages, and the opportunity to advance are just a few perks.  

New Mexico could increase healthcare workers and save money in the long-term by offering loan forgiveness to students.  The federal government and certain states offer these programs in exchange for years of service after graduation.  The state of Louisiana offers up to $45,000 in healthcare loan forgiveness exchange for a three-year commitment. These programs are helpful, but not nearly expansive enough.

Investing in loan forgiveness would save significant funds over time.  Hospitals are currently wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on “travelers.”  The Travel Nursing companies have used COVID to gouge desperately short-staffed facilities.  One hospital system is currently in a lawsuit battle with a large Travel Recruiting firm over $40 million in unpaid bills.  Many of our hospitals are taxpayer-subsidized, and the exorbitant cost of “travelers” compounds the millions spent in overtime pay and hiring/training expenses due to turnover.

Healthcare makes up 20% of the US economy, and this is forecasted to grow.  An investment in marketing and tuition forgiveness would be far less expensive than sticking with the current stopgap solutions.  

It benefits everyone for healthcare facilities to be adequately staffed.  Securing rewarding, stable careers for New Mexico residents would certainly benefit our state, where the median income remains well below average.  New Mexicans deserve accessible healthcare, and a brighter future.