Nursing shortage could exacerbate needs of vulnerable populations

Pooja Bhalla DNP, RN, Illumination Foundation Co-Chief Executive Officer

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the U.S. healthcare system, and a star emerged: the nursing profession. Those selfless, compassionate, seemingly indefatigable women and men who dedicate their professional lives to treating the sick and promoting health and wellness. 

Historically overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted, nurses are gaining the respect and admiration they have long deserved. During the height of the pandemic, we saw them risking their personal safety in hospitals across the country—having to reuse their masks, wearing garbage bags as PPE, working never-ending shifts. 

One problem. There is a nursing shortage in this country that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, one recent study found that by 2030 California will be short a projected 44,500 nurses (The 2021 American Nursing Shortage: A Data Study, University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences). 

Nursing students and professionals attend a lunch sponsored by the Future of Nursing Campaign for Action presented by AARP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at Consortium 2022 in Anaheim, California.

And who will be most affected by this shortage? Vulnerable populations. The poor, the elderly, persons of color, people experiencing homelessness. Arguably the people who most urgently need accessible, quality healthcare. 

“Nurses are essential practitioners in providing care and promoting health equity,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, former President of the AARP Foundation, a charitable affiliate of AARP focused on ending senior poverty. “Nursing has been grounded in social justice and public health since its inception.”

Ryerson, the keynote speaker at a recent consortium in Anaheim, California, “Together We Can: Solutions to Address Health Equity,” noted that the United States healthcare system is designed to get inequitable results.

“Who you are in this nation is about race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and the intersection of these identities,” she told the audience of more than 350 people. “Disparities of who gets sick, who gets care, and who dies are the product of long-standing inequalities stemming from racism, discrimination, and poverty.” 

The consortium, hosted by Illumination Foundation, a California homeless services nonprofit organization, brought together thought leaders from private industry, government, nonprofits, healthcare, and educational institutions to discuss solutions to lowering the barriers that vulnerable populations experience in accessing healthcare, housing, education, and work. 

The causes of the nursing shortage are many—burnout, stress, dangerous work environments, low pay, lack of flexibility, and more. But as nursing schools, policy makers, and healthcare providers work to address the shortage, they should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, Ryerson noted. They must provide for an inclusive nursing workforce that better reflects the communities it serves.

And then?

“Get out of the way of nurses and let them be the leaders that they are,” she said.

Learn more about housing and healthcare for those experiencing homelessness at www.ifhomeless.org.

Pooja Bhalla, who holds a doctorate in nursing practice, believes that providing the most vulnerable members of our community access to the wider healthcare system, including primary medical care and mental health care, is essential to long-term housing and health stability. She joined Illumination Foundation in 2017 as Chief Operating Officer before assuming the newly created position Executive Director of Healthcare Services in 2021. Dr. Bhalla is now Co-CEO of Illumination Foundation. Illumination Foundation’s mission is to disrupt the cycle of homelessness.

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