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Some worry nursing shortage could put patients at risk


(CNN) -- Health care experts are worried that a national nursing shortage could become widespread later in the decade -- just as the aging U.S. population requires more care.

A recent study by Vanderbilt University's School of Nursing in Nashville, Tennessee, found that the number of full-time registered nurses was projected to peak around 2007 and then decline steadily as more nurses retire along with the nation's Baby Boomers.

Pay scales are definitely a part of the problem.

"We're not being compensated for the care we give," said Marylou Arroyo, a pediatric nurse who plans to retire next spring. "I do it because I love to do it. But there are people who need the money that will go out and work in industry or work as a nurse liaison."

But worker dissatisfaction is only one issue putting hospitals in a crunch. Some say the U.S. nursing shortage is putting safety -- and possibly patients -- at the mercy of the financial bottom line.

Michele Ruhl didn't like what could be in store. The former hospital nurse said long hours, working on weekends and a lack of nursing staff prompted her to go back to school for a master's degree so that she could tackle her current job: a nurse practitioner with regular business hours at a pediatric clinic.

"My breaking point was after about 6 months (as a nurse at the hospital) of going home several nights crying -- very upset," Ruhl said. "And when I heard what you could do as a nurse practitioner and how I could change my career with just a year and a half more of school and becoming something completely different, but yet continue caring for children and providing health care -- I thought 'that's for me'."

As young recruits fail to replace older nurses who retire, the average age of the typical R.N. has been going up. Experts worry about the year 2020, when the registered nurse shortage is projected to reach 500,000 positions.

Recently, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that thousands of patients are dying every year as hospitals lose staff and sacrifice safety for an improved bottom line. The newspaper said since 1995, more than 1,700 patients deaths can be attributed to mistakes made by nurses.

"If you have to devote all your time to one patient who's having intense problems, then everybody else's medication is late," said Alison Goodman, a registered nurse who used to work at Wesley Medical Center, in Wichita, Kansas. Officials there said Goodman was fired after the R.N. was caught documenting what Goodman considered to be unsafe nursing practices.

Wesley denies their nurse staffing levels put patients at risk. Yet, the hospital recently paid $2.7 million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought against it by the family of a woman who suffered a stroke while recovering in her hospital room.

The family blamed Wesley's nursing shortage.

Goodman claims Wesley's nurses just can't handle being overworked and understaffed.

"We're hoping nothing goes wrong because you really can't possibly know -- you can't be in with your patients, you can't check on them every couple of hours" because there's too many other demands on your nursing time, Goodman said.

The CNN Medical Correspondent Linda Ciampa contributed to this report.

Your Health: Medical errors linked to nurses
September 15, 2000
Nursing mistakes cause thousands of deaths, probe finds
September 10, 2000
Hospitals work to solve emergency room crisis
August 25, 2000

American Nurses Association
American Hospital Association
Institute for Safe Medication Practices
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