The list of professions that have been pushed to the brink during the pandemic is ever-expanding. However, the sea change that swept over nursing in the past three years rivals that of almost any occupation, said panelists in a Sept. 28 event hosted by Duke University School of Nursing.
Already one of the most overworked professions, the pandemic only seemed to magnify nursing’s enduring problems, according to panelist and journalist Lauren Hilgers. A few months into the pandemic, nurses around the country began quitting in droves due to both burnout and undervaluation by their employers. As the front lines dwindled, hospitals working at full capacity needed to meet patient demand by any means necessary.
Enter travel nursing agencies, independent staffing organizations that matched nurses from across the country with hospitals dealing with acute labor shortages. Already increasing in popularity in the lead-up to the pandemic, demand for travel nurses in recent times has exploded. As this fundamental change in the make-up of the nursing labor pool occurred, people started to take notice.
In February of 2022, an article was published in the New York Times titled “Nurses Have Finally Learned What They’re Worth”. In the piece, Hilgers chronicles the major trends in the nursing workforce over the past three years. Hilgers describes the unique proposition facing the nurses who chose not to quit: remain as a staff nurse on their current salaries or sign up with a traveling agency and uproot their lives, albeit for higher pay. And the pay bump was substantial. Certain travel nurse jobs paid up to $10,000 a week, many times what staff nurses were earning. These nurses would often stay at a hospital anywhere from a couple of weeks to months, providing much-needed relief to healthcare systems. However, as the practice spread, questions soon began to emerge about the disparities in pay between staff and travel nurses, the sustainability of travel nurse programs, and, moreover, how the American healthcare system enabled travel nursing to rise to such prominence in the first place?
These questions served as the foundation of the Dean’s Lecture Series event, “The Value & Importance of the Nursing Health Care Workforce for U.S. Health and Wellbeing”. Moderated by Dean Vincent Guilano-Ramos PhD, the event featured Hilgers alongside a panel of distinguished speakers including Solomon Barraza, CCRN, cardiac ICU nurse at Northwest Texas Hospital, Benjamin Smallheer, PhD, Associate Professor at the School of Nursing, and Carolina Tennyson, DNP, Assistant Professor at the School of Nursing.
“Nursing is the largest segment of the healthcare workforce…yet what we contribute to the health and wellbeing of our country is invisible,” mentioned Dean Ramos at the discussion’s outset.
Smalheer agreed, adding that nurses today are contributing to patient care in ways that were vastly outside of their scope of practice just twenty years ago. A unique combination of technical proficiency, aptitude during crisis response, and ability to provide feelings of care and comfort, Hilgers describes nursing as one of, if not the only, profession in healthcare that considers the “entirety of a patient.”
A frequently cited statistic during the panel presentation referenced results from a Gallup poll indicating that nursing was rated as the most trusted profession for the 20th year in a row. While nurses were always aware of their influence and worth, getting healthcare systems to agree proved to be a much larger effort, one that only grew in importance as COVID-19 progressed.
“The pandemic has hardened us,” explains Smallheer. No longer were nurses willing to tolerate slights against their treatment as a profession. And they had tolerated plenty. Barraza, one of the protagonists of Hilgers’ piece, described the relentless search for purpose amidst constant burnout, especially during the pandemic’s heaviest waves. From finding efficient triage methods during a surge of cases to celebrating patient discharges, Barraza actively sought out ways to be “consistent when there was no consistency.” A charge nurse located in a region with severe labor shortages, Barraza had seen the influx of travel nurses firsthand every week. What ultimately kept him from traveling across the country in the pursuit of a more lucrative job, however, was the relationships he had forged within the hospital. Nurses, students, patients-they had all left an indelible mark on Barraza and enabled him to push through the long and grueling hours. Tennyson reinforced Barraza’s story by claiming that “you can be burnt out and still find value in a profession.” This seemingly contradictory duality may have proved sufficient to retain nurses during the pandemic, but as for long-term solutions, the panelists agree that significant change must occur at a systemic level.
One of the central tensions of Hilgers’ article is that between the hospital and the worker. The explosion of travel nursing during the pandemic was but a manifestation of decades of undervaluation by hospitals of nurses. In order to undo this narrative and enact concrete change, Tennyson argues that nurses must be represented in more interdisciplinary professional spaces, from healthcare administration to policy to business. Hilgers restates this idea more broadly, saying that nurses “need to have a seat at the table” in reshaping the healthcare system post-COVID-19.
Much of this work begins at the level of the educational institution. Smallheer and Tennyson spoke at length about how nurses can better be prepared to navigate the ever-changing healthcare workforce. They both highlighted a few of the Duke School of Nursing’s novel instructional methods, including early exposure to complicated patient cases, extensive practice with end-of-life scenarios, and recognition of overstimulation points in the field. Also important for nurses-in-training and existing nurses, according to all panelists, was collective action. Through supporting state and national nursing associations, writing to local politicians, and speaking to healthcare administrators, they argued that nurses will be better equipped to voice their demands.
As the panel reached its closing stages, one of the main talking points centered around changing the narrative of nursing as solely a burnout profession. Hilgers in particular remains critical of the portrayal of nurses, and more broadly those involved in care work, in popular media. She strongly advocates for authentic storytelling that including the voices of actual nurses, nurses such as Barraza. Ramos describes Barraza as someone who “represent[s] the best in nursing,” and the panelists maintained a strong desire to see such stories of resilience and passion spotlighted more frequently.
There is no simple formula to reform the nursing profession in the United States. However, through a combination of effective storytelling, more current educational standards, greater interdisciplinary involvement, and collective action, the panelists of the Dean’s Lecture Series firmly believe that lasting change is possible.