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Nursing shortage only going to get worse

As I See It

The U.S. is currently engulfed in a huge nursing shortage, which is only going to get worse. Baby Boomers should get used to the idea that youngsters are frowning on paying our Social Security tab, but even worse, there won’t be anybody to nurse our sick old bodies. Experts project a 400,000-nurse shortage in 20 years.

This is not the first time we have run short of trained nurses. During the first Bush reign, we experienced shortages of trained health care professionals until salaries were raised and working conditions improved. Consequently, more people signed up for nursing school and nurses who had left the profession returned. Things were better for awhile. But now, we are in the stew again.

Prior to the 20th century, most women were not gainfully employed outside the home. It was socially frowned upon and somewhat impractical due to large families and absence of modern conveniences. Dumping clothes in the old Maytag is a far cry from hand washing with a scrub board and a black wash pot. Microwaves were also in short supply.

Once women began entering the paid workforce, the only jobs that were considered socially acceptable were nursing and teaching. There was a perception that since women were not the primary family bread winners, their pay could be justifiably lower than a man’s. To a large, but changing, degree, that perception lingers on today.

World War II changed the perceived role of women in our society. While men were away fighting, women took their places in the factories. When the men came home, things were different and would never again be as before. Women had proved they could do a man’s work and began to think they should enjoy equality of pay.

Unfortunately, the perception that teaching and nursing were women’s work and need only command a modest salary was fixed. Even when men began to join the ranks of teachers and nurses, it was still treated as low-cost labor.

How stupid can we be! What jobs are more important than molding the minds of our children and ministering to our sick bodies! Nonetheless, the perception stuck and is reflected each year as administrators budget the labor costs for our schools and hospitals.

Women now choose to be architects, physicians and construction workers as well as teachers and nurses. If we are going to dig our way out of this mess we need to realize that the old paradigm is antiquated and useless. You get what you pay for and everybody wants to be fairly compensated. The most skilled people are attracted to the jobs that provide sufficient compensation to be comfortable in the middle class. Women are no longer willing to accept second-class pay.

The same answer that worked in the 80’s can work again — increased pay and improved working conditions. Since most nurses practice their profession as employees of hospitals or other large organizations, they do not have the freedom to set the price for their labor. They are easy pickings for budget cutters. Though in the short term it might look like success, the long-term impact of underpaying nurses is devastating. Young people choosing a career will simply choose something else.

Everyone is concerned about the cost of health care and it is blasphemy to suggest raising that cost even higher by paying nurses more. Health care is bogged down in a bureaucracy that rivals the federal government, and that is the place to attack the problem. The health care system is mired down with needless complexity and horrendous lawsuit settlements.

Carefully analyzing the cost and importance of compliance with miles of bureaucratic red tape and taking away the lawsuit plumb from trial lawyers would be a good first step toward freeing the health care system to go about caring for sick people. The cost of complying with government-mandated bureaucracy and defending and settling an ever increasing flood of frivolous lawsuits dwarfs the cost of paying nurses a fair wage.

Our complacency has allowed government to grow much too large. While not overly zealous about hard work, bureaucrats and politicians will generate tons of paperwork to justify their existence. We then reward them with even larger budgets and they repay the favor with even more regulation.

Hospitals have become a bureaucratic nightmare. Freeing our health care facilities of needless paperwork would serve a dual function of lowering the cost of health care and funding higher salaries for nurses. Sounds like a winner to me.

Thought for the Moment — Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything. — Ecclesiastes 11:5

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.


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