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Environmental Impacts of the 2021 Nursing Shortage

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While unchecked industrialization and unregulated commercialization are the main culprits behind global climate change, thousands of other factors play small but significant roles. The inefficient U.S. healthcare system is one of them.

A behemoth requiring ungodly amounts of energy and resources every day, the American healthcare system is consistently cited as one of the most wasteful institutions on the planet. And to make matters worse, an ongoing nursing shortage in the U.S. threatens to cripple the system even further, making it even less environmentally friendly than before.

Let’s look at six ways the 2021 nursing shortage is harming the environment:

Excessive Travel

The nationwide nursing shortage means more nurses are traveling long distances to get to where they’re needed most. A traveling nurse could be drawing blood in New York on Monday and passing a California job background check on Friday. While ensuring hospitals have the staff they need to meet demand is critical, flying nurses around the country is wasteful; a passenger traveling from JFK to LAX will tack on 281 kilograms of CO2 to their carbon footprint.

Wasted Resources

Hospitals rely on a constant flow of medical supplies, much of which goes to waste if not used in time. If a medical facility doesn’t have enough nurses to treat patients, their stockpiles go unused, and thousands of pounds of potentially biohazardous material get thrown away. Unfortunately, given the unpredictable nature of demand, hospitals can’t risk cutting back on these supplies. The only solution is to ensure there are enough doctors and nurses to account for every bed in the hospital.

Improper Disposal

Given the biohazardous nature of medical waste, proper disposal is essential for keeping the environment safe. Since RNs make numerous waste disposal decisions every day, a staff shortage means a greater chance of biohazardous material making its way into the environment. Not only are overburdened nurses too busy to spend time on waste disposal, but the staff serving them are also left to decide for themselves what to do with potentially dangerous materials and harmful substances.

Inefficient Operations

When hospitals experience a nursing shortage, they operate in scramble-mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The constant stress and neverending sequence of trauma and treatment make it almost impossible for staff to function efficiently. That’s because they’re far too focused on patient outcomes. Unfortunately, the resulting inefficiencies lead to energy waste, discarded resources, and a greater chance of making waste disposal mistakes.

Slowed Progress

Hospitals are slowly making upgrades to operate with greater energy efficiency and less waste. However, understaffed medical facilities are too busy hiring employees and ensuring positive patient outcomes to spend time trying to make environmentally conscious improvements. What’s more, most understaffed hospitals are diverting funds to payroll in an effort to recruit nurses, leaving less financial room for multi-million dollar investments in clean energy solutions.

Mismanaged Health

A nationwide shortage of qualified nurses means fewer people get the medical treatment and health guidance needed to lead a happier and healthier lifestyle. The result is more people eating too much meat, avoiding activity in favor of staying inside and using up energy, and a variety of other things that are bad for the environment. Putting an end to the 2021 nursing shortage means helping people be healthier, which helps the planet in the process.

Runaway industry and shameless consumerism are the factors most to blame for the climate crisis. However, virtually every facet of society is guilty, from the individual to the institution. That includes healthcare, especially in places where demand for medical services exceeds the supply of professionals. In order to heal the planet, we need to heal one another. That starts with more nurses.

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