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'Definitely A Huge Problem': Nurses, Faculty Grapple With St. Louis Nursing Shortage

From left, Natalie Murphy and Gabrielle Bahr joined Monday's show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Gabrielle Bahr remembers being fascinated by the medical field even as a young child. And her family’s experience a handful of years later, when her younger sister spent a few months in a neonatal intensive care unit and she interacted closely with the nurses there, solidified Bahr’s choice of career: She knew then and there it would become her passion.

Now a staff nurse in the emergency department of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Bahr has zero regrets about her job path despite its inherent stresses and difficulties. At the end of each long shift, she knows her work is meaningful. But sometimes she heads home feeling even more exhausted than usual. That’s because her nursing team, like so many in Missouri, is chronically short staffed.

“You have more patients, so it leads to long days,” Bahr said Monday on St. Louis on the Air.

“Sometimes you can’t get to everything you need to get to, and [that] frustrates patients [and] leads to delayed care, so it’s definitely a huge problem.”

Industry veterans like Natalie Murphy describe the situation as a crisis, noting that the region’s nurse vacancy rate stands at about 20% among hospitals, clinics and outpatient provider locations. A leader at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ College of Nursing, Murphy is working with a variety of partners to address the issue.

But it’s not an easy thing to fix, as Murphy explained.

“[The shortage] is getting worse, because one, we have a larger population — a lot of aging baby boomers who require care,” she said. “The number of health care positions since the year 2000 has gone up by 52% in the state of Missouri and is expected to rise another 30%, [and] in nursing, we have a couple of problems that play into this: We don’t have enough nurse faculty, so it’s hard to train new nurses when you don’t have enough faculty in place, and this is a national problem.”

There are also fewer people applying to nursing school, Murphy added, partly because there’s a smaller pool of young adults to draw from in general.

“Our average age of a nurse is about 50 years or older, and so what’s happening is that over the next 15 years, a huge portion of our nurse population will be retiring,” she said.

One of the steps UMSL is taking involves a $7.2 million capital campaign that will expand and renovate its Nursing Learning Resource and Simulation Center. The goal is to significantly increase both nursing student enrollment and the university’s simulated training capacity for student nurses, thereby lessening the training burden on clinical partners that are already stretched thin.

Listen to the full discussion, which included calls from two medical professionals who shared their observations:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.