A staffing shortage is hurting patient care, N.J. nurses say. Most have considered leaving bedside work.

Nearly three-quarters of New Jersey bedside nurses have recently considered leaving their jobs and a majority say they’ve been placed in situations that put their license at risk, according to an alarming report released Thursday.

The survey, conducted by Health Professionals and Allied Employees — the largest health care workers union in the state — found an overwhelming sense of frustration among the 512 respondents, most of whom are bedside hospital nurses, or were until recently.

The sharp rise in nurses leaving bedside care has exacerbated an existing staffing shortage in New Jersey hospitals and acute-care facilities across the country.

“This finding validates a concern of experienced nurses in HPAE’s focus groups that there may be too few younger nurses to fill the ranks as they retire,” the HPAE said in its report on the survey results.

As a result, most nurses in the survey said the quality of care in hospitals “is getting worse,” with 75% saying “hospitals are getting less safe,” the report noted.

At a Thursday press conference to discuss the survey, nurses who are HPAE leaders described worsening nurse-patient ratios and how they have to take on duties such as transporting patients, emptying garbage cans and doing lab work because of shortages among support staff. 

Sheryl Mount, a registered nurse at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, said the ratio at her hospital at times has been eight patients to one nurse. Sometimes a nurse might have to care for seven patients in a unit where patients are taken after leaving intensive care — a scenario Mount, president of HPAE Local 5105, called “very dangerous and unsafe.”  

Mount said the acuity in that unit “is very, very high … they’re on monitors and certain life-saving drips.” 

Not only have 72% of nurses considered leaving their jobs, the survey indicated, but nurses with five years of experience or less are the most likely to depart, with 95% considering walking away.

Four in 10 respondents say there was a 50% chance they someday would leave hospitals to become a travel nurse, which comes with significantly higher pay.

The key reason for their discontent was inadequate staffing levels, leaving fewer nurses to care for more patients. Stress and burnout were also factors, the survey found.

Insufficient staffing had been a problem in nursing long before the pandemic, health experts say. But COVID-19 deepened the shortage, turning it into a full-blown crisis, particularly as surges increased the volume of patients in hospitals and nurses became infected.

During such coronavirus waves, many nurses saw their shifts grow by two to four hours and they were sometimes forced to care for double the number of patients.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected more than 275,000 additional nurses would be needed from 2020 to 2030. Employment opportunities for nurses were expected to grow at a faster rate than all occupations through 2026, according to a report in the National Library of Medicine.

Nursing shortages lead to errors and higher morbidity and mortality rates, according to the NLM report. Nurses with high patient-to-worker ratios also experience elevated burnout rates.

The HPAE survey also revealed that 83% of nurses were put in situations they felt placed them at risk of losing their license. They cited supervisors who failed to follow protocol and being asked to cover units for which they were not trained.

The survey did not provide details about specific situations.

One third of respondents said they were frequently placed in situations that put them at risk of losing their license.

More than 60% reported that managers sometimes did not follow practices and protocols, and six in 10 said they had been asked to work in units that required skills they did not have.

The overarching finding of the study is “issues with nurse retention have existed for a while and the pandemic made them even worse,” the report said.

“They won’t go away unless hospitals take action.”

That action needs to include better staffing levels and higher pay, nurses say, with 97% of respondents saying hospitals can afford to hire more nurses and 93% saying the facilities have the financial means to pay higher wages.

Nurses also say legislators can alleviate the problem through measures that address patient-nurse ratios.

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Elizabeth Llorente may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.

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