The nurse staffing crisis facing Oregon has been decades in the making.
A few health care workers will leave the profession this week due to their decision to decline vaccination, but burnout will lead to a larger number of nurses leaving the bedside. In Oregon, we will not be able to educate enough nurses to replace them.
Bold and decisive action on nursing education and workforce development, or what is sometimes called the nursing pipeline, is crucial to prevent this crisis from getting much, much worse.
Nursing faculty salaries must more closely mirror clinical salaries. Because nursing faculty can make significantly more in a clinical setting, we must address wage disparities to retain qualified educators. One direct way to address pay disparities is for the Legislature to pass legislation like the state of Washington did in 2019.
Washington House Bill 2158, the Workforce Education Investment Act, appropriated nearly $375 million to address student needs. It also designated a portion of those funds for increasing nurse educator salaries and high-demand program faculty salaries at community and technical colleges.
The Oregon Legislature could also consider a wide range of other initiatives, including tax credits and student loan forgiveness grants for nursing faculty, helping create incentives for talented educators to stay teaching.
Health care systems and nursing degree programs should actively seek new partnerships specifically to address faculty salaries. Health care systems can partner with a nursing school by providing direct salary payments to support increasing a nursing faculty member's salary. Those nursing faculty could then serve as preceptors in the hospitals where nursing students would do their clinical placements.
The high cost of nursing programs is often cited by potential nursing students —particularly students from underrepresented communities — as a significant barrier to entry, Oregon Nurses Association is calling on our state's philanthropic community to dramatically increase the number and scale of scholarships for nursing students.
The Oregon Nurses Foundation already provides some scholarship opportunities, with a focus on students in rural areas and students of color, but larger trusts and foundations in Oregon can, and should, be focused on providing crucial scholarships for students entering nursing school. In particular, Oregon needs to see the creation of new scholarships targeted specifically at students of color, bilingual students, and students from rural areas; all of which are underrepresented in Oregon's nursing workforce.
Finally, ONA is calling for the Legislature to investigate the creation of an Oregon Nurse Corps that would provide student loan forgiveness for nursing students who agree to complete four years of work in areas of the state with the most serious nursing shortages, including rural areas, in community-based organizations that address needs of underserved and marginalized populations, in critical access hospitals, and in critical need units.
Details of such an Oregon Nurse Corps would need greater research, but this is an example of the kind of bold action we are seeking.
Fixing the nursing pipeline will require partnerships, collaboration and innovative thinking. These are just a few possible ways forward.
One important question for Oregonians to ask: If we, as a state, are not able to retain experienced nurses, how are we going to replace them? Failing to address the nursing pipeline now simply ensures an even greater crisis in our future.
Natasha Schwartz of Southwest Portland is an Oregon Nurses Association board member and a registered nurse at Oregon Health and Science University. She is the former president of the Oregon Student Nurses Association.
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