Can AI help with the national nursing care shortage?

Thaddeus Fulford-Jones,
Thaddeus Fulford-Jones,
November 15, 2023

On October 16, STAT News published an article titled “Is there a nursing shortage in the United States? Depends on whom you ask.” The answer to this question has become more nuanced and controversial, especially amidst recent hospital strikes and contrasting narratives.

According to the STAT News article, the American Hospital Association calculates an alarming shortfall, exacerbated by the pandemic, with a deficit of 1.1 million nurses. Conversely, the largest nurse union, National Nurses United, claims there's no shortage of nurses. Rather, the issue lies in the unwillingness of many nurses to work under the present conditions.

The article concludes that while there may be ample nurses, there could still be a shortage of nursing care, especially if institutions don't hire enough of them to do the work required. This deficiency causes severe nurse dissatisfaction due to staff overwhelm and burnout. Chronic nurse understaffing also leads to concern among patients and patient advocacy groups, often focused on safety.

From the hospitals' perspective, the shortage feels very real. They often need to hire temporary contract travel nurses, which escalates labor costs. Hospitals are further challenged as they compete for a more limited pool of nurses, inadvertently increasing wages.

Nurses, however, have a different viewpoint. They believe that adequate staffing, which includes both fully-trained nurses and nurse support roles, would make their jobs both manageable and appealing. They don’t dismiss the reality that there are nursing shortages in some geographies, but they claim that hospitals intentionally maintain low staffing levels, leading to suboptimal care quality.

So, where can technology, particularly AI and machine learning, fit into this landscape? We see five areas of opportunity.

1. Optimized Staffing Models: AI can predict patient volume, thereby assisting hospitals in determining staffing needs efficiently, scaling nurse availability up or down as needed to meet demand. Future AI solutions may be able to accurately predict not only patient volume but also patient acuity and care complexity, to further optimize staffing.

2. Training and Skill Development: Machine learning can help in designing personalized training programs, ensuring nurses are well-prepared for real-world scenarios.
3. Administrative Automation: By handling repetitive administrative tasks, AI can free up nurses to focus on patient care.
4. Enhanced Patient Care: AI-driven tools can offer insights into patient health, ensuring nurses have the information they need to provide the best care possible.

5. Predictive Analysis: Machine learning can anticipate patient needs, ensuring timely intervention and care.

As the U.S. grapples with the complexities of the nursing situation, integrating AI and machine learning may not solve the entire issue but can certainly alleviate many challenges. The goal remains to ensure that every patient receives the care they need, and every nurse feels valued, safe, and supported.

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