Charlotte nurses are stretched thin

Charlotte nurses are stretched thin

Axios Charlotte file photo

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Hospitals nationwide have for years struggled to retain and keep nurses. The pandemic has only made the situation more dire.

What’s happening: Nurses are aging and retiring. And, facing long hours and general exhaustion from years of treating COVID patients, younger nurses are leaving their jobs in droves.

“For people who have been practicing nurses, the burnout they’re experiencing from the pandemic is really making them rethink their priorities,” said Dena Evans, director of the UNC Charlotte School of Nursing.

  • Many schools have seen a decline in applications amid the pandemic. But at UNC Charlotte, applications are up 20-25% above pre-pandemic levels, Evans notes.

Why it matters: Ongoing nursing shortages can put patient welfare at risk, those in the industry say.

These days, nurses often leave traditional hospital settings to take on new roles as travel nurses. These roles can pay as much as three times more than other nursing salaries, per the Post.

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  • The median salary for a full-time RN is just under $74,000, according to a 2018 report from the Department of Health and Human Resources
  • Currently on Indeed.com, postings for travel nurses in the Charlotte area list pay for some roles as $115/hour and more than $4,500 per week.

Travel nurses can even return to hospital or city in which they formerly worked.

“Then you have a morale issue (among on-staff nurses) because you have travel nurses living in the area making all that money,” Evans said.

Of note: Fastaff, a travel nurse staffing agency, sent more than seven times the number of travel nurses to North Carolina in 2021 than it did in 2020, a spokesperson said.

One registered nurse at Atrium Health said her labor and delivery unit has 16-18 nurses “on a well-staffed day.” These days, they often work in the single digits while having to care for multiple patients, some of whom are high acuity.

Many of the Atrium nurse’s former colleagues have left to take higher-paying jobs as travel nurses, she added.

  • Sometimes, the nurses at the hospital have to decide who gets an epidural and who doesn’t because there isn’t enough staff to care for both patients, said the RN, who asked to remain anonymous for professional purposes.
  • Atrium says that anyone who wants an epidural at any of its hospitals can receive one.

Having fewer nurses work a shift, especially if many of those nurses are young with less experience, puts patients in emergencies at risk, the nurse added.

“What is supposed to be one of the best days of someone’s life, the birth of their baby, is overshadowed by the fact we cannot give our patients the care and attention they deserve,” the nurse said. “We are too busy trying to keep our heads afloat and make it until the next shift arrives.”

At Novant, the biggest area of need is in bedside nursing staff.

The hospital has taken a number of steps in response to the ongoing staffing challenges, including:

  • Pay incentives aimed at recruiting and retaining registered nurses, certified nursing assistants, respiratory therapists and other clinical professional support staff.
  • A nurse residency program, which Novant launched in 2017, for new graduate nurses “to create a pipeline of strong, clinical professionals,” the hospital says.
  • The launch of new programs that allow clinical and non-clinical staff to take on additional shifts in support of frontline workers.

“Like healthcare systems across the country, we are being impacted by a national nursing shortage, which existed prior to the pandemic and has been further exacerbated by the pandemic,” a statement from the hospital read.

Similarly, Atrium has upped pay for nurses in order to recruit and retain them, according to a spokesperson. “Besides the pay increase for all teammates, we have offered critical staffing pay and special bonuses for qualified nursing staff,” a statement from the hospital read.

The problem extends far beyond Charlotte. Last week in Washington, D.C., about 30 unionized nurses and labor rights activists gathered outside the Howard University Hospital to call for national action to address nursing shortages, Axios DC reported.

“It’s not safe to have six, seven patients and no help on the floor,” said Howard University Hospital nurse Esmeralda Salgado, who works on the trauma floor. “We are doing the job of two nurses.”

Editor’s note: We updated this story with a response from Atrium. 

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