As healthcare reform looms large on the nation’s conscious, a quieter, less-news-sexy crisis is slowly eating away at the system itself.

By 2020, a drastic shortage of nurses in New Jersey could render any healthcare reform in the state useless. A recent study on the state’s nurses by the Collaborative Center for Nursing estimates that due to overstressed workloads in a state with nearly 9 million residents, the age of the average nurse here (56), and fewer people entering the profession, New Jersey’s pool of nurses could diminish just as history’s largest population of elderly, the Baby Boomers, reach their mid-80s.

The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce is hosting “The Business Summit On the Nursing Crisis” on Friday, September 18, at 8 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza in Monroe. Cost: $195. Visit www.nj chamber.com, or call 908-975-3211.

CCN argues that the major reasons the field is drawing such sparse interest are near-nonexistent retirement benefits, bad salaries, lack of advancement and job opportunities, and oppressive work environments.

According to the study, more than half of the state’s nurses say they have too few colleagues already, leading to a growing inability to do their jobs effectively. In practical terms, that means that nurses are becoming less able to spot important changes in a patient’s condition, something 40 percent of the surveyed nurses stated.

Burnout, exhaustion, and multiple long shifts are also turning people away from the field, according to the study, a problem common to other professionals, including police officers and firefighters.

Another key finding of the study is that the nursing shortage is exacerbated by inadequate schooling. Nurses with advanced degrees are in extremely high demand, and those who could teach more effective nursing are wooed away by salaries that, though often inadequate themselves, are higher in the field than they are at school.

The study estimates that nursing schools in New Jersey would have to graduate triple the number of students in order to stave off the shortage predicted by 2020. There are 43 nursing schools in New Jersey, which graduated almost 3,000 nurses in 2008, according to the New Jersey Nursing Initiative.

In July, NJNI, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on College Road East, launched a $22 million program offering free tuition to nursing master’s and doctoral candidates in the state, including a $50,000 annual stipend to teaching nurses.

According to NJNI, there are more than 11,400 nurses in this state, and 15 percent of registered nurses are expected to retire in five years. Consequently, the state needs more than 18,700 nurses to avoid the projected 2020 shortfall and maintain even its current effectiveness.

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