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Nurses in demand as Kentucky hospitals continue to struggle with shortages

UK Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington.
Corinne Boyer
UK Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington.

Local hospital leaders say that as COVID-19 pressures go down, lack of staffing has become a new crisis.

An August report by the Kentucky Hospital Association found that more than one in five nursing positions were vacant at the end of 2021, representing more than 5,000 unfilled jobs. This was based on a survey of more than 100 hospitals. Representatives from the KHA held a press conference at the state capitol on Thursday to discuss the findings.

The survey showed the rate of vacancies among medical-surgical nurses and critical care nurses was higher than the statewide average, at about 30% and 27%, respectively.

About one in six total hospital positions were unfilled, according to the report, with the highest vacancy rates among licensed practical nurses and registered nurses. Nearly a third of those nurses were new hires by the end of 2021.

Nancy Galvagni, the KHA’s president and CEO, said travel nurses sometimes fill those missing roles. But they usually only stay at a hospital for about 13 weeks before moving on to their next location.

“We really saw the increase in the travel nurses hitting during the COVID pandemic. And even though COVID has largely died down, we haven't gotten away from having to use travel nurses to supplement our staff,” Galvagni said.

According to the report, vacancy rates in Kentucky nursing jobs grew significantly over the past decade. For medical, surgical and telemetry registered nurses, around 4% of jobs were unfilled in 2010. That rate rose to 12% in 2015 and jumped to 30% last year.

As other states and regions contend with a hiring shortage, local hospital representatives acknowledged the same struggles in their own backyard.

Kathi Eldridge is the associate vice president of talent acquisition at Baptist Health, which had 11 Kentucky hospitals take part in the report. She said prior to the pandemic, there were about 1,400 job openings across the company. But now there are over 3,000, leading to a vacancy rate of around 11%.

“I think the pandemic definitely exacerbated the labor shortage, especially for nurses… Now that the pandemic is slowing down, what we're finding is that most of our seasoned workers, our seasoned nurses, are deciding to move out of the industry or take jobs that are not by the bedside,” Eldridge said.

She also said there are not enough new nursing school graduates entering the system to fill the gaps, at a time when many more nurses are preparing for retirement.

While the report found that the majority of nurses are aged 21 to 40, more than a third of nurses working in psychiatric care and more than a quarter working in operating rooms or post-acute care units are expected to retire by 2030.

Last year, the Journal of Nursing Regulation published a report based on a survey of American nurses during the first half of 2020. It found the median ages of registered and licensed practical nurses were 52 and 53 years, and that more than 20% of nurses planned to retire during the next five years.

Ken Marshall, the COO of UofL Health, which had six hospitals surveyed, said he believes many nurses are leaving or retiring due to the trauma from working during the pandemic.

He added that strengthening the education system to develop new nurses is crucial for combating shortages, but said that could take a while.

“My worry is that nothing's going to happen tomorrow. And that the position that we are in is going to be a position that we are in at least for five years, because that's about the time it takes to get someone trained and ready to be a nurse,” Marshall said.

Thursday’s press conference came after KHA’s Galvagni gave a presentation to the Kentucky legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development. During the meeting, she said hospitals, especially rural ones, have been struggling financially this year due to inflation.

To combat Kentucky’s nursing shortage, state lawmakers passed a bill in the springallowing nursing schools to accept more students and making it easier for nurses licensed in other states and countries to work in the Commonwealth.

They also allocated $10 million in the state budget to support career development in the health care industry, including through grants and student outreach.

This story has been updated.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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