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10-year trend shows nursing shortage in Miss. long before pandemic, hospital leaders say

(Joe Ellis/UMMC Photography | UMMC)
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 2:36 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Exhausted nurses. Patients at risk. Overwhelming wait times.

Right now, Mississippi’s hospital system is experiencing what COVID-19 patients feel on a ventilator.

For the most serious Coronavirus cases where individuals can’t get enough oxygen, doctors use ventilators to help a person breathe.

Patients are sedated, and a tube is inserted into their trachea.

The trachea is connected to a machine that pumps oxygen into their lungs.

Two pop-up hospital units with federal manpower, air force medics, and other healthcare personnel are keeping hospitals alive.

The condition is still critical - but it’s not just due to the pandemic.

At the heart of healthcare are nurses, considered front-line workers. And Mississippi Board of Nursing data shows serious nursing vacancies have been a problem since 2017.

  • 2017 nurse vacancy rate 5.9% (473)
  • 2018 nurse vacancy rate 9.2% (732)
  • 2019 nurse vacancy rate 11.4% (1,179)
  • 2020 nurse vacancy rate 12.3% (1,541)

In fact, D. Kim W. Hoover, chief operating officer of the Mississippi Hospital Association says the number of nursing vacancies goes back even further.

“The trend is telling,” Hoover said. “The increase in vacancy rates does indicate that hospitals are experiencing difficulty attracting qualified Registered Nurses. Hospitals always have some level of vacancy as nurses leave for a variety of reasons. What we look for is the trend. The 10-year trend shows that the MS statewide hospital vacancy rate is the highest it’s been in the past 10 years. I do think this trend is indicative of a hospital nursing shortage.”

Each year hospitals have struggled with not having enough nurses, and it’s more dire right now.

“We have units at the hospital that are empty because we’re not able to staff them. We are trying hard to recruit staff,” Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said in an August press conference.

The question is, why is the state’s vacancy rate high year after year?

Hoover says there are several reasons, including less-than-competitive pay.

“Mississippi typically has more of a problem with maldistribution. Our salaries are lower than some of the other southern states, particularly Texas and Florida,” Hoover said. “Economic conditions, educational opportunities, and job opportunities for other family members have to be considered.”

According to nurse.org, Mississippi ranks second to last in nursing salaries, with an average of $59,750 annually. Nearby states like Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia have a higher average salary.

Hoover also said nursing schools are also unable to pay faculty what they might make in clinical practice, making it harder to maintain a pipeline of nursing graduates due to a lack of nurse educators.

Even as far back as 2006, the state had a lack of educators which fueled the shortage and left Jackson area hospitals 600 nurses short.

Members of Mississippi’s health care community tried to tackle the problem with a new initiative called “Saving Nurses Saves Lives.” Solutions include accelerated education programs, more scholarships, and higher wages for nursing faculty.

More than a decade later, the state’s healthcare system faces the same challenge.

One reason why - Mississippi doesn’t roll out the red carpet to keep nurses here.

“As a state, we do not offer incentives or benefits,” Hoover said. “In the past, Mississippi offered nursing students and nurses the opportunity to continue their education with a forgivable scholarship loan through the Miss. Institutions of Higher Learning. The recipient had to agree to work here for an amount of time dictated by the loan. The Mississippi Legislature has chosen not to fund those scholarships for several years.”

The former registered nurse said the Magnolia State does offer a Rural Dentists Scholarship Program and a Rural Physicians Scholarship Program but no Rural Nurses Scholarship Program.

Individual hospitals offer incentives though, such as stay bonuses, sign-on bonuses, incentive pay for certain areas and shifts, and professional career ladders, but these benefits are offered in other states too, so Hoover said it really comes down to whether the person chooses to live and work in Mississippi.

And for one nurse, whose post about the topic went viral, her passion for being here is fading.

To protect her identity, we will not show her name.

“Myself and my coworkers that have stuck it out and stayed because of our love for our job,” she writes. “We have literally fought through this together losing another piece of our souls every day.”

She goes on to share the frustrating feeling of being overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated.

“They are now bringing in nurses from all over who will be getting paid $165/hr. Do you think these people care about that hospital or Mississippi like the ones of us who have stayed do?” she quipped. “I can promise you they do not. Money brought them here, not love,” she added.

Mississippi had a nursing shortage years before the pandemic. The question is why.
Mississippi had a nursing shortage years before the pandemic. The question is why.(WLBT)

Of the 63,402 licensed nurses in Mississippi right now, MBN says only 21,207 report working in hospitals.

It’s another indicator of the shape hospitals are in; alive, but still in serious condition.

Historically, approximately 60% of actively licensed RNs in Mississippi reported working in hospitals,” she said. “That percentage has dropped to 41%. As more ambulatory surgery and other outpatient centers open, nurses are drawn to a working schedule that doesn’t include shift work or weekends. The threat of a highly infectious and deadly virus has left some nurses deciding not to practice in hospitals or leaving nursing altogether.”

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