By Contributor on May 06, 2011

By Suzanne Gordon

May 6-12 is National Nurses Week. Don't believe the hype that the nursing shortage is over.

After warning of a shortage for years, American hospitals now claim that we have plenty of nurses at the bedside.

Hospital administrators are essentially saying that the bad economy is coercing more nurses to stay on the job. Since some nurses' husbands or wives have lost their jobs in other sectors, nurses are hanging on to their own jobs and delaying retirement.

But while the economy is taking a toll, the nursing shortage remains a serious problem.

To cut their budgets, most hospitals are not hiring enough nurses to adequately care for the kind of intensely sick patients that fill so many hospital beds today. These patients may not be getting the attention they need because nurses are assigned so many patients -- six to eight on the day shift, and nine or maybe even more at night. (The optimal ratio is one nurse per four patients on medical-surgical units.)

What's more, hospital hiring policies are plugging the pipeline, as few hospitals are hiring newly minted registered nurses today. All over the country, they are reporting difficulty finding jobs, as hospitals seek out experienced nurses to cover the heavy patient load.

This creates a patient care Catch-22. If hospitals won't hire new graduates, they can't get experience. And if they can't get experience, there will be no one left to hire when the experienced nurses leave their positions. Since the average age of a registered nurse is 47, a lot of nurses will be retiring in a few years, no matter how bad the economy is.

To make matters worse, hospitals, to save money, are not expeditiously filling positions left vacant when a registered nurse quits or retires. As one nurse manager at a major hospital in the Northeast told me, "They won't allow us to fill a position once we know someone is leaving. We can only fill it when they've left. Then it can take up to a year to go through the search and paperwork to get someone in that position. So we're working short for an entire year."

These practices are bound to produce another catastrophic nursing shortage in only a few years.

The fundamental problem is that politicians, policymakers and health-care administrators don't seem to understand that it takes years -- at least eight to 10 -- to produce a truly expert nurse, the kind you really want at your bedside. Hospitals seem to think you can turn on the spigot and get hot and cold running nurses. Then, when your budget gets tight, you can turn it off and, when it's convenient, turn it on again.

That's the kind of magical thinking that got us into trouble in the 1990s.

Unless hospitals are forced to change their ways, there may not be anyone there to answer the buzzer. And if you're the one ringing the buzzer, good luck.

Suzanne Gordon is a journalist whose latest book is "When Chicken Soup Isn't Enough: Stories of Nurses Standing Up for Themselves, Their Patients and Their Profession." She can be reached at pmproj@progresssive.org.

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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