Our national health care debate often conflates access to adequate health care with health care insurance coverage. Those are two different critters.
While there is no ignoring the rapidly expanding cost of health care in America — more than 17 percent of the entire economy — health care debates often leave out the human costs in terms of patient suffering and the toll that health care delivery takes on caregivers.
The nursing profession is the foundation to our greater health. Often a vocation of passion and concern rather than a channel to hefty income, nurses work the front lines. They are there for us around the clock, staffing our hospitals every day and holiday. And now they must confront the growing issue of opioid-induced abuse in the emergency room where they work with police officers and EMTs to save lives — over and over. Nurses and other health care workers are more likely to suffer assaults on the job than any other profession.
Other data is equally chilling. Nationally, 55 percent of America’s nurses are over 50. In Hancock County, half of our nurses are retirement-age eligible in 10 years. Rural health care needs (hospitals, nursing, doctors) are projected to grow much faster than urban areas, as baby boomers add thousands, daily, to the already growing older population.
We are living longer, yet with more chronic conditions that require additional care. Many seniors are frail and need specialized care, plus we are also more obese than previous generations — adding strain to staff both physically and numerically as nurses combat multiple mounting issues. Substance addictions round out a toxic cocktail.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 64,000 qualified applicants for its accredited educational programs were turned away in 2016 due to insufficient faculty, classroom space or budgeting. Locally, there is an effort underway to combat our nursing shortage.
The University of Maine has announced an action plan to double enrollment and expand rural nursing programs with a bachelor of science in nursing degree offered through the Mill Mall division of UMaine Augusta’s campus programs in Ellsworth, as well as in Brunswick, Rockland and Rumford. With an expected nursing shortage in Maine predicted to be 3,200 professionals by 2025, this degree program is essential to averting a potential disaster in regions such as Hancock County.
However, offering a new nursing program requires more than a classroom. Yes, the educational community needs to encourage those individuals with the passion and caring necessary to be nurses to follow their inclinations. Hospitals and clinics need to provide support for their staff by addressing workload issues, safety, compensation and overall conditions to ensure that our best nurses remain our best nurses throughout long careers.
We need more teaching nurses. Only 8.7 percent of Maine’s nurses have the master’s degree needed to teach other nurses. This is where we come in.
On the ballot this fall is Question 4, a bond request that would provide up to $12 million to be invested in the University of Maine’s nursing program. It’s a start, on a path that will require more money and more community investment in order for all of us to have adequate health care — no matter what your coverage.
The next generation of nurses needs our support and encouragement today. Otherwise, who will care for you tomorrow?