Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained healthcare systems across the world, and the American healthcare system is no exception. Of particular note is the effect the pandemic has had on nursing. According to the Center for American Progress, “amid a vast increase in the number of patients, employment levels for registered nurses declined by 3% between 2020 and 2021, the largest decline in at least 20 years. Chief Nursing Officers have consistently reported staffing as their greatest challenge throughout the pandemic, with vacancy rates as high as 30 percent.”
However, the emergence of COVID-19 really just accelerated what was already a recognized and problematic trend. Even before the pandemic there was a nursing shortage driven primarily by 2 factors: an aging population and an aging workforce.
Recently, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that the US currently has “the highest number of Americans over the age of 65 than any other time in history”—a 73% increase since 2011. So, as the American population gets older, and lives longer, more skilled healthcare workers will be needed—not fewer. At the same time, the healthcare workforce—like the population it serves—is also nearing retirement age. For example, the NCBI notes “One-third of the nursing workforce could be at retirement age in the next 10 to 15 years.” The combination of an aging population and aging healthcare workforce means that, as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, “11 million additional nurses [will be] needed to avoid a further shortage” in the nursing sector.
Door County Medical Center has not been immune to this phenomenon. “There are structural shortages across the healthcare industry right now,” remarks Brian Stephens, CEO of Door County Medical Center. “And in particular,” he adds, “there simply are not enough nurses. Even here at DCMC we have a shortage of nurses at nearly every level.”
The Jody Boes Scholarship—changing with the healthcare industry
In 2017, Bill and Pam Welter established the Jody Boes Scholarship in partnership with Jody Boes, former Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Patient Care Administration at Door County Medical Center. Designed to financially support nurses pursuing an advanced degree at either the master’s or doctorate level, the Jody Boes Scholarship has previously provided scholarship recipients with $2,500 to apply toward their tuition. This year, the monetary award scholarship recipients will receive has been raised to $10,000.
“I think about what’s happened since the scholarship was first established,” Boes reflects, “I feel that our world has changed in that time—that the healthcare industry has changed. Back in 2020,” she continues, “when the COVID pandemic hit, nurses put themselves at risk, they put their families at risk. That’s what nurses do because we care. Now, 2 years later,” she adds, “we’ve had a mass exodus of nurses—nurses who have said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m gonna retire early and go into a different profession. I can’t do it.’ They’re understandably burned out, and this adds another wave to an already critical shortage.”
Supporting the pursuit of advanced degrees with an eye on the future
In the past, Boes’ reasons for supporting nurses who chose to pursue advanced degrees focused on the increased level of skill the job required in the 21st-century. “When I was a diploma graduate,” she remarks, “we managed nursing care in the hospitals. These days, nurses need to be better educated—they need to be the most educated because they are the front line—they are the eyes, ears and hands for our physicians 24/7.” Now, both Boes and Stephens point to 3 additional reasons to invest in DCMC’s future graduate level nurses.
Nurse leaders: “Quality leadership is extremely important for our organization,” Stephens remarks, “and in particular, master’s level nurses make great leaders. Many of our nurse leaders have received graduate degrees, and they’re just a group of people that you can really count on to be very effective—to know how to work within the organization and do what’s best for patients.”
“As a former nurse executive,” Boes adds, “I did need a master’s to hold that position, and while I served in that role, 3 of our nurse directors who worked under me received their master’s degrees as well. Now,” she continues, “they are the leaders that are developing our next generation of bedside nurses—they make such a difference in helping develop the future of this organization.”
Nurse practitioners: “We have a number of nurses who have decided they want to go on and become independent nurse practitioners, which requires a graduate degree” remarks Stephens. “This means they have the authority to treat patients and prescribe. They’re similar to a physician in that they’re quite advanced in terms of the patient care they can provide. Having nurse practitioners is really effective for our organization—often they help fill roles where we can’t find physicians.”
Nurse educators: “There’s a real shortage of nurse educators right now,” Boes remarks, adding that “it’s gotten to the point where there are more people aspiring to become nurses than can actually get into nursing programs because there are not enough instructors.”
Indeed, a recent study by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found that in the 2020/2021 academic year, “U.S. nursing schools turned away 80,521 qualified applications from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs,” due, in part, to an insufficient number of faculty.
“This is normally overlooked by many hospitals,” Stephens notes, “but it seems obvious that in order to train more bedside nurses—to address the overall shortage of nurses—you need more master’s level prepared nurses generally, as they are the only ones who are certified to do the training.”
“We are very committed to career and personal development at Door County Medical Center across every job and every position,” Stephens says. “With nurses in particular,” he adds, “the Jody Boes Scholarship is there for those who make the decision to go back to school and try to achieve another degree or another level of nursing.”
“Many of them are juggling a full-time job and responsibilities at home and in their personal lives. So,” he continues, “if there is anything that we can do at work to help relieve some of that financial burden, hopefully that helps them make that decision—that despite the burden that they carry, pursuing an advanced degree will be something they want to go forward with and continue to work on.”
The Jody Boes Scholarship is available to eligible candidates of Door County Medical Center who are pursuing an advanced degree in nursing, including but not limited to: MSN; NP; CRNA; PhD; Clinical Nurse Specialist; and Clinical Nurse Leader. Applications open in January, 2023. This year’s scholarship will be awarded the following May, around National Nurses Day.