BILLINGS - Walking into a major hospital like Billings Clinic, you will likely see many nurses and doctors hard at work. But when the pandemic took hold early last year, many hospitals quickly found themselves understaffed.

Not much has changed since then.

"Nurses are really the eyes and ears of healthcare and truly the center piece for patients when they are in the hospital,” Laurie Smith, the chief nursing officer of Billings Clinic, said.

During the pandemic, emergency rooms were full and nurses were overworked.

Even today, hospitals are still requesting more nurses for immediate assistance in the ER.

Smith said nurses are feeling burnt out.

"Our nurses are very tired," Smith said. “They've been working harder than I've ever seen them work before, and that's because they are dedicated to their patients and their teammates."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2022, there will be far more registered nurse jobs available than any other profession at more than 100,000 per year. 

That's why hospitals, like the clinic, have to get creative to fill the shortage.

"Looking in the short term, travelers are contract employees who come in for a temporary period of time, usually between eight and 13 weeks, and they help with the staffing right there immediately,” Smith said. “And then in the long term, we're partnering with a company that's bringing international nurses into the United States."

But the consequences of the shortage don't just weigh on the nurses' shoulders.

Vicky Byrd, the CEO of the Montana nurses association, says they can also impact your personal healthcare.

"So, the effects would be to you, and to I and to our family members not getting or having access to good quality healthcare. Whether it's a registered nurse or a APRN, or across the other healthcare professions, we all want good, high-quality health care and access to these health professionals that can make a difference in your life,” Byrd said.

Byrd and Smith both agree resolving the shortage requires two steps, the public's support for legislation allocating funding for hospital staff and supporting nursing education.

"A lot of it starts with our lawmakers at the local, state and national level. Listen to your nurses. Tap into your professional nurses association,” Byrd said. “We've been here for 100 years, we will be here for 100 more."

500,000 nurses are expected to retire by 2022.

Both Byrd and Smith agree that the shortage is not going away anytime soon, but that supporting nursing education will make a difference.

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