Originally created 08/31/02

Shortage is a scandal



The United States is hitting the nurse's call button big-time.

The country's nursing shortage is so acute that officials are looking for ways to drastically increase the number of foreign nurses coming to America. One method: Instead of requiring foreign nursing applicants to come to America for licensure testing, the tests will be offered abroad beginning in 2004.

You can't blame the National Council of State Boards of Nursing for taking the step. The nation's hospitals alone are juggling 125,000 nursing vacancies - and with not enough Americans going into nursing, and the aging population set to overwhelm the system in years to come, the vacancies are expected to triple.

It is, in short, becoming a crisis, if it isn't already.

It is also, quite frankly, a scandal. One of the richest, highest-educated and most health-conscious countries in the world is out trolling for nurses.

Shame on us.

Fact is, this country ought to be exporting health care professionals, not importing them. Worldwide there are millions of poor and sick and desperate seniors and children with little or no access to even minimal health care. We should be helping them - not siphoning off their best and brightest to take care of us.

The United States, the only nation to have put footprints on the moon, should make it a priority to be self-sufficient in health care. It's a matter of priorities.

The Nurse Reinvestment Act is a good start. As recounted on these pages recently by the Medical College of Georgia's Marlene M. Rosenkoetter, dean of the school of nursing, the law recently signed by President Bush offers a variety of scholarships, grants and other devices to encourage people to enter the profession, especially in underserved areas.

But for a long-term fix, the image of nursing must change. While it is perceived, rightly, as one of the most important lines of work available - it just doesn't get much more important than providing health care - the profession suffers from an image as a female job. Not so anymore. Women have so many more options for other careers these days - and men increasingly are joining the ranks of nurses.

Good. It's an honorable, life-saving career.

The move to attract more foreign nurses, too, besides being regrettable due to its impact on other countries, should not be used as a method to keep nurses' compensation down.

Health care costs need to be controlled, no doubt. But hiring and retaining top-quality nurses - and harvesting sufficient numbers of home-grown ones - isn't something we can cut too many corners on.