Low nursing school capacity and burnout contributing to nurse shortage in Utah

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The nursing shortage in the United States has reached a “crisis level.” More than 2,500 positions are unfilled in Utah alone, at a time when quality healthcare is most needed in. (BYU Photo)

Nurse shortages in the United States have reached “crisis level” according to a report released on May 5. This shortage coincides with peak demands for healthcare providers in the country following the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 2,500 positions are unfilled in Utah according to a University of Utah Health press release published on April 1. According to the release, the scarcity does not stem from a lack of interest in the profession but a lack of adequate resources and faculty to accommodate demand for incoming nursing students.

In 2019, 80,407 applicants were turned away from faculty positions “due to insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space and clinical preceptors, as well as budget constraints.” This meant that there is not enough supply of resources to meet the demand of nurses needed in the United States.

In 2021, less than 30% of applicants were accepted into BYU’s nursing program. The competitive acceptance rate is turning many students away from even attempting to apply.

“We have a large number of applicants who all would be great nurses,” said associate dean of undergraduate studies and research in BYU’s College of Nursing, Julie Valentine. “Choosing nursing students out of our excellent applicants is the most difficult part of my job.”

According to Valentine, BYU’s main roadblock to increasing capacity is a lack of physical space.

“We are in the Kimball Tower and don’t have our own building,” Valentine said. “We struggle with space for our faculty.”

The lack of space is especially impactful for a program centered on simulation labs and developing hands-on skills. Although BYU’s nursing program does have a simulation lab in the basement of the Kimball Tower, the area only takes up a portion of the basement, leaving students and faculty with minimal space to learn essential skills.

“We are just so constrained by our limited physical space,” Valentine said. “That’s our biggest challenge.”

The college of nursing only has one designated classroom leaving little opportunity to expand capacity. Office space for faculty is another roadblock.

BYU’s competitive acceptance rate could be hindering a potential flow of Utah nurses, with many aspiring students feeling discouraged even before taking steps to pursue the career. 

BYU’s nursing program accepted less than 30% of applicants in 2021. The average GPA was 3.85 and ACT scores averaged 27-28. (BYU Photo)

“I assumed coming to BYU my freshman year I wasn’t going to get in,” said BYU nursing student Maryn Behling. “The only thing that ever deterred me from the nursing program was just how hard it is to get in at BYU.”

Behling, who is one year into the nursing program and works as a teaching assistant for an anatomy class, says many students assume they won’t get in.

“A lot of the students that come through mention, ‘Oh yeah I was pre-nursing’ and I talk to them about why they aren’t anymore and they’re like, ‘Because I’m not going to get in,’” Behling said. “It does make me sad how people move away from nursing just because they’re assuming they’re not going to get in.”

Other colleges in Utah are taking measures to combat the shortage. The University of Utah recently announced they will raise the amount of students who are admitted into the program from 70 students twice a year to 62 students three times a year. The school also committed to spend $400,000 each year to address the scarcity of nurses throughout the state.

“It’s important that people in Utah, as well as the rest of the country, have an adequate number of nurses to meet their health care needs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said University of Utah College of Nursing dean Marla De Jong.

In 2017, Utah State University developed programs throughout Utah and created partnerships with the Utah College of Applied Technology to give Utahns more accessible opportunities for healthcare education in an effort to improve the shortage.

Although BYU is lacking resources to accommodate the high number of aspiring nurses, the college is implementing solutions to combat the emotional burnout which is also contributing to the shortage.

BYU’s nursing program has updated their curriculum with a new class to help upcoming nurses cope with stress and burnout in the field following the COVID-19 pandemic. The class includes information on building resiliency and prioritizing wellness.

“The classes really focus on how to combat burnout but also communication skills that are necessary,” Behling said. “It’s making sure we’re not just learning how to give a sponge bath or give injections, but we’re learning how to become well-rounded nurses.”

According to study published in Nursing Outlook, 54% of nurses suffer from moderate burnout, with emotional exhaustion scores increasing by 10% and cynicism scores increasing 19% after one year in the field.

“It is just an extremely demanding job in a lot of different categories,” Behling said. “It’s emotional and physical and even spiritual to some point when you have to watch people die or go through really hard things.”

Sydney Lovell, a nurse at Alta View Hospital who recently graduated from Ameritech College in Draper, agrees the work can feel exhausting. 

“It is easy to feel overworked with the hours,” Lovell said. “With 12 hour shifts and doing them back to back it can feel overwhelming trying to catch up on sleep.”

Last year in January during COVID-19, Lovell worked as a tech in the ICU, medical-surgery and psych units where she noticed burnout happening in the field.

“They had a lot of high patient ratios, so not enough nurses for the number of patients they had,” she said. “Their jobs turned from a lot of traumas to mostly COVID-19 cases which wasn’t fun for a lot of them.”

The impact of burnout on organizational turnover had a 12% increase in a nurse leaving for each increase percentage on the emotional exhaustion scale.

“Every nurse has struggled,” Valentine said. “This has been a really hard time for the nursing profession and it doesn’t look like its going to be improving anytime soon. We need to address this in education, but also institutions need to address it as well.”

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