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Colorado’s Looming Healthcare Crisis: 10,000 Nurses Needed by 2026

Healthcare statistics in Colorado continue to show a predicted shortfall of 10,000 registered nurses and 54,000 allied health professionals such as medical and nursing assistants by 2026.

This comes at a time when the population of Colorado continues to age and will need more healthcare services, and aging nurses are retiring or leaving the profession after COVID-19 pandemic stresses. The U.S. labor market study by consulting firm Mercer forecast Colorado will be the third-worst state in shortages of registered nurses behind Pennsylvania and North Carolina in 2026.

READ: Nurse Entrepreneurship — A Solution to Colorado’s Nursing Shortage and Healthcare Challenges 

“The healthcare workforce shortage is quite serious and something we’re devoting a lot of energy toward,” said Julie Denning with the Colorado Hospital Association. “In addition to the work every hospital and health system in the state is doing to retain their current workforce and grow the future workforce, CHA is partnering with the state on a number of healthcare workforce initiatives including offering education on workforce wellness, professional development and workforce pipeline growth.”  

Hospitals in the state have invested more than $1 billion since the pandemic to retain and recruit staff, according to the CHA. Hospitals are trying to build the pipeline of employees through tuition reimbursement, student loan assistance, training stipends and professional development programs. 

Increasing pay for existing nurses is happening through incentive bonuses, market and merit increases, and protected pay and emergency relief. After the pandemic, investments in caring for the healthcare workforce is even more important with programs aimed at fostering employee wellness, according to the CHA. 

“Health care workers are burned out from the pandemic and are experiencing increasing rates of violence from patients and their families, spurring many to leave the profession,” Denning said.  

Shortages of nurses is not a new problem due to such factors in recent years as economic downturns, waves of retiring nurses and increased health care demand, according to the American Nurses Association 

“As the pandemic hit in March 2020, nurses, who represent the largest group of healthcare professionals in the country, already were under strain due to factors such as retirements outpacing new entrants to the field, increased demand for health care from aging and chronic disease populations, and inadequate workforce support,” according to the nurses’ association. 

Leaders at nursing programs such as Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Northwestern Community College say their students are offered jobs even before they graduate or pass their certification exams.

School of Nursing Dean Whitney Erickson at Colorado Mountain College said several key factors contribute to the state’s ongoing inability to graduate enough nurses to fill future needs, including a shortage of nursing instructors who are required to have a master’s degree in the field. Plus, most higher-level nurses make less money teaching than working at a hospital.  

“Most nursing schools are having a hard time hiring faculty,” Erickson said. 

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Smaller hospitals have limited spaces for nursing students to complete their required clinical nursing rotations. For the CMC nursing programs in Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Spring Valley near Glenwood Springs, the students may travel to the Front Range or Grand Junction to complete clinical rotation hours, which adds to education costs and inconvenience. 

“There is a real sense of burnout from working with a student all the time,” Erickson said of the challenge of hospital preceptors accepting nursing students. “Instead of just taking care of patients, you are trying to teach too.”  

Several nursing schools including CMC and Metropolitan State University of Denver are working to increase nursing student capacity by adding more or larger high-tech simulation labs where nursing students can earn up to half of their required clinical hours. 

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Erickson points to a bright spot in funding through the Colorado Rural Health Care Initiative. The initiative works with 15 participating institutions to increase the number of healthcare graduates who serve in rural counties through measures ranging from housing assistance to scholarships to rural-oriented classroom curricula. 

State leaders approved funding in 2022 for the Care Forward Colorado program for zero-cost, short-term training programs at community and technical colleges. Students who enroll in cooperating programs in fields ranging from certified nursing assistant to phlebotomy technician have tuition, fees and course materials covered as funding allows. 

Ingrid Johnson, CEO at the nonprofit Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, said “grow your own” programs are expanding, starting as early as high school with medical prep classes. For example, students at Cherry Creek Innovation Campus can learn to be certified nursing assistants while in high school. Colorado State University Pueblo recently was awarded $1.39 million to create a Partners Leading Advancement in Nursing Track, or PLANT, to grow pathways for southern Colorado students to earn a nursing degree. 

Hospital systems also are enticing health-care employees to attend nursing school if students promise to return to work for the hospital, in general for two years for every year of nursing school paid. 

Still, deans at multiple Colorado nursing schools say they do not have enough staff and infrastructure to accommodate all the interested nursing students. The deans say more targeted funding is needed to increase the number of nursing professors and to provide stipends for nursing preceptors in hospitals to accept students.  

 

Suzie C. Romig is a freelance journalist who has lived in Colorado since 1991. Her byline has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the state on topics ranging from small businesses to raising children to energy efficiency. She can be reached at [email protected]

Nurse Entrepreneurship: A Solution to Colorado’s Nursing Shortage and Healthcare Challenges

As the population ages, two major changes are happening simultaneously in the United States: The number of patients needing care and the number of nurses retiring from the profession are both growing. Additionally, many nurses leave the profession due to stress, and enrollments are not keeping pace with demand. This is causing some big problems for Colorado’s healthcare system, including an alarming nursing shortage.

Although the state needs 33,000 nursing graduates per year to meet demand, some years have only seen 24,000 nursing students graduate, creating a major shortfall of new talent. To ensure that patients can get the quality care they deserve while also helping to reduce stress on existing nursing staff, getting more nurses to graduate and enter the workforce in Colorado is critical. 

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One important way to help address this problem is with nurse entrepreneurship. Advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners, can start their own practices and provide a range of health services with autonomy in Colorado. 

Here’s why these businesses can help with the nursing shortage in the short and long term. 

The role of independent nursing practices 

Nurse practitioners have a lot of freedom to practice independently in Colorado, once they meet the requirements. NPs can diagnose and treat patients, and even prescribe medication once they’ve had enough hours under supervision and collaboration with a physician. 

While many nurse practitioners choose to work at medical groups or hospitals, others start their own independent practices. This is helping to ease the nursing shortage that is making it more difficult for patients in Colorado to access care. 

With nurse practitioners able to diagnose, treat and prescribe, many patients can take care of their routine health needs at an independent nursing practice. This helps to reduce the number of patients in hospitals and decreases wait times for patients who need to see their primary care physician. Nurse practitioners offer patient-centered care, which can be more appealing for many patients who want a personalized healthcare experience. 

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Providing preventative care & telehealth services 

One key way that nurse entrepreneurs can help with the nursing shortage is to provide more preventative services in their practices. When people are more proactive with their health, they are less likely to need invasive treatments and other hospital procedures requiring inpatient care. This reduces the number of patients in the hospital and eases the workload for existing nurses who are already stretched thin. 

Telehealth is another great option that nursing practices can offer patients. It allows people who live in rural areas or do not have access to transportation to access preventative care and basic health advice without needing an appointment in person. Telehealth services make life easier for patients and providers alike. 

READ: Telehealth to Play Key Role as Geriatric Population Soars

Other types of nursing businesses 

The field of nursing is expanding, and there are lots of opportunities for nurses who want to make a difference in healthcare. Nurse entrepreneurs in Colorado who don’t want to open an independent practice can start businesses that provide services like travel nurse staffing or nursing informatics. 

These kinds of businesses help with staffing issues and can help make hospitals more efficient overall. They also provide more career choices for nursing students and might even encourage more young people to join the profession by offering different options for students with a range of talents and interests. 

Encouraging and inspiring the next generation of nurses

Starting an independent nursing practice is also a great way to encourage and inspire the next generation of nurses. Long-term, solving the nursing shortage will require increasing the enrollment levels at state nursing programs and improving working conditions for nurses who are already in the field. 

Encouraging the next generation of nurses in Colorado needs to start right now. As our nursing workforce continues to retire and patient numbers rise, the situation for nurses who are in the field now is only going to get worse. 

Nurse entrepreneurs create new job opportunities and show how it’s possible to practice independently as a nurse in Colorado. That example of success might just lead to more young people pursuing this challenging, yet rewarding career path. 

 

Andrew Deen HeadshotAndrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in a number of industries from retail to medical devices and everything in between. He implements lean methodology and is currently writing a book about scaling up business.