Hitting a Nerve

Nurses: The unsung heroes


Try practicing inpatient medicine without nurses.

You can’t.

In a world where doctors get top billing, nurses are the unsung heroes that really make it all happen. We blow in and out of the rooms, write notes, check results and vitals, then move on to the next person.

But the nurses are the ones who actually make this all happen. And, amazingly, can do all that work with a smile.

But in our current postpandemic world, we’re facing a serious shortage. A recent survey of registered nurses found that only 15% of hospital nurses were planning on being there in 1 year. Thirty percent said they were planning on changing careers entirely in the aftermath of the pandemic. Their job satisfaction scores have dropped 15% from 2019 to 2023. Their stress scores, and concerns that the job is affecting their health, have increased 15%-20%.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

The problem reflects a combination of things intersecting at a bad time: Staffing shortages resulting in more patients per nurse, hospital administrators cutting corners on staffing and pay, and the ongoing state of incivility.

The last one is a particularly new issue. Difficult patients and their families are nothing new. We all encounter them, and learn to deal with them in our own way. It’s part of the territory.

But since 2020 it’s climbed to a new-level of in-your-face confrontation, rudeness, and aggression, sometimes leading to violence. Physical attacks on people in all jobs have increased, but health care workers are five times more likely to encounter workplace violence than any other field.

Underpaid, overworked, and a sitting duck for violence. Can you blame people for looking elsewhere?

All of this is coming at a time when a whole generation of nurses is retiring, another generation is starting to reach an age of needing more health care, and nursing schools are short on teaching staff, limiting the number of new people that can be trained. Nursing education, like medical school, isn’t a place to cut corners (neither is care, obviously).

These days we toss the word “burnout” around to the point that it’s become almost meaningless, but to those affected by it, the consequences are quite real. And when it causes a loss of staff and impairs the ability of all to provide quality medical care, it quickly becomes everyone’s problem.

Finding solutions for such things isn’t a can you just kick down the road, as governmental agencies have always been so good at doing. These are things that have real-world consequences for all involved, and solutions need to involve private, public, and educational sectors working together.

I don’t have any ideas, but I hope the people who can change this will sit down and work some out.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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