CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- They are there taking care of you when when you get sick and helping you get better. But soon, there may not be enough of them to go around.
Nationwide, hospitals are dealing with a scary new reality: there are not enough nurses to treat a growing number of patients.
"With Baby Boomers and more nurses retiring in the future, certainly the concern is that the vacancy rate will grow," said Abby Denby, RN, MS, NEA-BC at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.
As the Director of Patient Care Services at SMJH, Dendby has been keeping a close eye on the impact vacancy rates are having on the hospital.
Nationwide, the average nurse shortage, or vacancy rate, is about ten percent.
At Sentara Martha Jefferson, the vacancy rate is about 6.5 percent, which means, of the roughly 350 nursing positions at the hospital, 22 are currently empty.
"I think our biggest challenge is finding experienced nurses," Dendby said about Martha Jefferson's nursing needs.
For the hospital just off Interstate 64, a demand for specialized nurses who can start working right away is a major contributing factor in the current vacancy rate.
"One of the most difficult things is recruiting for the specialized areas," said Debbie Desmond, Director of Human Resources at SMJH. "You're looking for people who have had experience and training in the particular technologies that is required in each of these areas."
Sentara Martha Jefferson tries to mitigate this challenge by training new nurses for specialized departments.
Across town at the University of Virginia Medical Center, the vacancy rate is about seven percent. That means, of the roughly 2,700 nursing positions at the hospital, about 100 are empty.
"We know we are competing against large academic medical centers in large metropolitan areas," said Steven Snyder, Director of Talent Acquisition at the UVA Medical Center.
He says location can be a challenge in bringing nurses to UVA.
"That's one of the challenges we have, bringing people to Central Virginia as oppose to a large metropolitan area," explained Snyder.
For UVA, nurse retention and rapid growth are significant contributing factors to the current vacancy rate.
"We are growing programs, we are striving to open new clinics," said Tina Mammone, PhD, RN, CENP, NEA-BC, Chief Nursing Officer at the Medical Center.
She says the approach at UVA is to anticipate needs and fill them as quickly as possible. She says the hospital also works on programs aimed at keeping nurses in the hospital.
According to Mammone, medical staff at UVA are highly sought after by other hospitals and tend to get recruited out.
"We are very proactive in posting our positions," she explained. "We may not have the need right now but we are trying to get ahead in terms of recruiting."
But it turns out, both UVA and Sentara Martha Jefferson use a "float" system to make sure patient care is not impacted by staffing numbers.
"We won't compromise patient care during times of vacancy or recruitment efforts," said Dendby.
The float system plugs holes in a hospital's nursing staff by pulling from a pool of available nurses. The system prevents gaps in coverage and ensure nurses are not overworked.
"We pay careful attention that our nurses are working the appropriate hours, marking sure they are not only able to care for a patient safely, but also that they are looking out for themselves and their well being" said Mammone about the nursing staff at UVA.
Both hospitals say in the long term, they hope to bring down their vacancy rates.
UVA and Sentara Martha Jefferson also stressed that realistically, they will always have some vacancies.
According to both hospitals, positions open as nurses come and go, and hospitals grow and add new departments.
Nurses at UVA and Sentara Martha Jefferson work a 12-hour shift with a nurse to patient ratio of 1:5 on average.