San Diego

‘I could die in the hallway:' Patients afraid of ‘what ifs' amid statewide nurse shortage

The University of California San Francisco predicts registered nurse course enrollment will increase and close the statewide nursing gap by 2029

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Jennifer Palmer and Melisa Mitterwald have nursing in common.

Palmer’s been nursing for 16 years. Mitterwald for 16 months. Still, Mitterwald says it’s taken her no time to notice nurses are stretched thin.

“The staffing ratios haven’t been in the best interest for us caring for our patients," she said.

“Staff” and “shortage” have become buzzwords across the industry. The Hospital Association of Southern California reports more than 30% of nursing roles in local hospitals are vacant. Pre-pandemic, that rate was 6%.

And data from the University of California San Francisco (UCFS) shows less people have been enrolling and graduating from registered nursing programs in California since 2020.

Palmer says when nurses are exhausted and without resources, patients like Scott Kelley lose, too. The kidney transplant patient used to wait a week or two for an appointment. Now, he waits months.

“If the nurses aren't there to staff, I don't know, I could die in the hallway or get really sick or lose my medication,” Kelley said. “I've got to get these blood tests, so staffing levels are vital for my care and for all transplant patients and anyone with chronic illness.”

UCSF data suggest staffing struggles leave many nurses considering leaving the industry. Palmer says she can’t because her heart is here.

“I am a nurse through and through. I love taking care of people. I love helping people. My goal in life is to increase the betterment of the human spirit. And that's what I've been doing," she said.

UCSF predicts registered nurse course enrollment will increase and close the statewide nursing gap by 2029.

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