New KY nursing survey shows staffing challenges, likelihood of significant turnover

·4 min read

Many Kentucky nurses are exhausted, overworked and underpaid, and a quarter of those polled in a new statewide survey plan to leave their job in the next year.

The Kentucky Nurses Association found that 73% of the 850 licensed nurses polled earlier this month said the driving factor behind their burnout and the overall workforce shortage was untenable patient loads and too few nursing staff, while just over 40% cited insufficient pay. A quarter said it was “likely” or “extremely likely” they would leave their current position in the next three months, and 16% said they were likely to leave the profession all together.

“I don’t want to leave the nursing field, but I cannot imagine being a nurse in five years with no change,” one unnamed nurse wrote in the poll.

In a Friday morning news conference to present the findings of the survey, nurses and leaders of state health care associations proposed that Kentucky allocate $100 million in federal pandemic money to aid in the nursing workforce shortage, which has been wholly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staffing challenges aren’t new, Donna Meador, board president of the Kentucky Nurses Association and retired nurse, said Friday morning. But the pandemic has pushed it to a “crisis level.” At the rate of projected exodus, fueled in part by nurses reaching retirement age, more than 16,047 additional nurses will be needed in Kentucky by 2024 to fill workforce holes, she said.

There are roughly 88,000 licensed nurses in Kentucky, and they comprise more than 53% of the state’s health care workforce. Of those who responded to the survey, 61% had more than 21 years of experience. Roughly a quarter said physical exhaustion and fear of spreading coronavirus to a loved one was also contributing to the shortage. A majority cited better pay, financial incentives and more staffing support as critical solutions.

Generally, the pandemic has pushed many nurses to their physical and emotional limits, said Kristin Pickerell, director of critical care and emergency services at Norton Healthcare in Louisville and past president of the Kentucky Organization of Nurse Leaders.

“We started this pandemic with nurses being heroes — it was really a rallying point for the public,” she said. But in recent months, as the Delta variant surged in Kentucky, “it’s really kind of morphed into something different,” she said, citing occasional instances of “violence against nurses in the hospital, all because of the pandemic and one’s belief that [COVID-19] isn’t real.”

Because of frequent instances of “physical and verbal abuse,” at least one health care organization in Kentucky issued “panic buttons” to its nursing staff during the pandemic, said Meador, who called the need for such a step “almost unbelievable.”

Health care workers and associations have been sounding the alarm on worker shortages in Kentucky for months. Recently the effort got a second wind when Gov. Andy Beshear announced his plan to provide bonuses to front-line essential workers employed throughout the pandemic using $400 million in federal dollars.

The governor’s plan — which will rely on the formation of a work group before the 2022 General Assembly’s regular session to divvy up the money — was proposed after Republican lawmakers criticized him for not guiding them in a September special session to appropriate federal pandemic money to immediately aid in the retention of Kentucky’s health care workers. The $400 million would come from the next $1 billion in remaining ARPA funds expected next May.

To help retain existing nurses and recruit new nurses, the Kentucky Nurses Association asked the state to earmark a quarter of the $400 million for the state’s nursing workforce:

  • $50 million to put toward incremental retention bonuses for nurses who stay and work in their local communities.

  • $20 million for retention, recruitment and financial incentives for National Council Licensure Examination pass rates and graduation rates, as well as for colleges and the school of nursing council to research why so many jobs are unfilled.

  • $20 million for loan forgiveness for nursing faculty, students and graduate nurses to work in underserved areas from 2021 to 2026.

  • $10 million for a nurse emeritus program to utilize retired nurses for support, to augment staffing needs and retain novice nurses.

Non-financial workforce solutions nursing leaders floated Friday included the creation of a statewide nursing task force.

“Our nurses have seen a lot of unnecessary suffering” over the last 18 months, Pickerell said. “It could’ve been prevented, particularly now because of the vaccine. That is just adding to the stress and burnout that our nurses are feeling at this point.”

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