Nursing shortage hits GW

National nursing shortages are hitting the GW hospital hard, exhausting the existing nursing staff and compromising patient care, GW doctors say.

John Williams, dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told University trustees Oct. 18 that the hospital is worried about nurse “burnout” and looking to hire at least 120 new nurses.

“There is definitely a shortage and it is dangerous because patient care is affected,” said Dr. Reza Askari, resident surgical physician at the GW Hospital. “The physicians complain because there aren’t enough nurses, but there is nothing they can do about it.”

Nurses working in the hospital say the personnel shortages are overtaxing existing nursing staff and inhibiting patient care.

“I work in patient recovery and we can’t move patients out of the recovery room when we need to because the lack of nurses, which frustrates the patients and it frustrates the families,” said Cheri Suzuki, resident nurse at the GW Hospital.

Hospital officials said they are struggling to fill vacant positions by upping recruiting efforts due to the national shortage.

A study released last Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported a direct correlation between nursing staff shortages and patient mortality rates.

According to the study, surgical patients in hospitals with high patient-to-nurse ratios experience higher risk of patient mortality and reports nurses are “more likely to experience burnout and job dissatisfaction.”

The problem is not isolated to GW, according to a Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations report published earlier this year. According to the report, more than 126,000 national nursing positions are unfilled.

“GW did overseas recruiting, as well as regular recruiting,” said Patricia Charles, resident nurse in the rehabilitation unit at The GW Hospital.

The new $96 million state-of-the-art GW hospital has alleviated the shortage by turning to efficiency and technology, utilizing “mobile carts and laptop computers,” hospital Communications Manager Marti Harris said in a written statement.

The layout of the new hospital has been a major factor in easing the nurses’ jobs. The hospital is arranged into “pods” of four patient rooms and a small nursing station.

“This arrangement allows nurses the opportunity to stay closer to their patient and provide more timely care than if they had to work from a central nursing station away from their patient,” Harris said in the statement.

Howard University Hospital is also among the many being hit by the nursing crunch.

“This isn’t just in (D.C.), it is a national problem too,” said Alfanso Paz, director of nursing at Howard University Hospital. “There are so many opportunities for nurses now that they can go wherever they want. Many are going to (information technology) and other healthcare industries.”

Paz said the cause of the nursing shortage is a complex. “Nurses in the profession are of retiring age and enrollment in nursing programs is low.”

Effects of the shortage are felt across the GW hospital.

“I know it is a problem in surgical and in Intensive Care Unit,” Askari said. “I know that the medicine floors are horrible.”

To deal with the situation both Howard and GW have engaged in active recruitment programs.

“We have intern/extern programs to attract Howard University students, as well as other university students,” Paz said. “We also have regional, national and international recruitment efforts underway.”

In spring, 2002 GW Hospital recruited 133 new nurses, according to a hospital statement.

The GW and Howard hospitals have turned to nursing agencies to fill many absences, which, in turn, affects care.

“As a result of the shortage, the hospital has started hiring agency nurses who do half the work of a nurse, don’t know where things are and require training when they get here, and they even get paid better,” Askari said.

Howard University Hospital reported no spike in complaints, partially because of its ability to administer its work force.

“Right now we are managing the shortage with interns and augmenting staffing problems with overtime and nursing assistants,” Paz said.

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