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How COVID-19 could impact the future of the nursing profession

By Lynne Nichols, opinion guest column. • 

As a nurse myself, I can’t help but wonder how the fallout from the current COVID crisis might affect the nursing profession as a whole. I foresee the post-COVID setting having one of two primary trajectories: an exacerbation of our current nursing shortage, or a great influx into nursing.

Sadly, I fear the former: that COVID-19 may result in another crisis, a nursing shortage the likes of which this country has never seen.


“Who in their right mind would want to become a nurse after this,” seems a reasonable question to ask. Yet it is important to understand that there is no cookie cutter version of nursing — no one-size-fits-all nurse that can be removed from one nursing-setting and conveniently dropped into another setting expecting the same outcome.

All nurses have knowledge of infection prevention, but not all nurses are comfortable placing an IV. The media could be doing a better job specifying the various skill sets they need from nurses, so nurses could feel more confident in volunteering, rather than being placed into a setting simply to have another body on the front lines. I understand that nuances like these are difficult to message during a crisis. This point may simply act as anticipatory guidance for future management of such crises, which will inevitably reoccur in the future.

It is imperative for nursing schools and health care organizations to anticipate the ripple effects from COVID-19. One ripple effect could be to ensure that emergency room and intensive care unit nurses are appropriately financially compensated for putting their lives on the line every single day, thus providing incentive for retention as well as recruitment into these nursing specialties.


At the same time, it should be made clear that there is no cookie cutter version of nursing anymore. Just as a tire is essential to the operation of a vehicle, and specific to the type of vehicle it carries, so is nursing specific to the area of medicine being practiced. Good or bad, right or wrong, medicine has become specialized, and nursing has followed suit. Just as there are different quality tires, likewise there are varying levels of nursing experience, from novice to expert.

This development takes years and years. My point is: not all nurses are equal — not every nursing student should or will become an emergency room or intensive care unit nurse — and that’s OK. This speaks to the great multiplicity the nursing profession offers, and is precisely why the profession is a great one.

We cannot have a ripple effect of this crisis be an abject fear of joining the nursing profession, or any health care profession. At the same time, we cannot have a continuation of the broken system that makes unreasonable demands of nurses, from a top-down position, including to break the rules of training and enter the most death-defying situation of a nurse’s career with insufficient support and personal protective equipment.


This is one extreme example of the unthinkable demands placed on health care providers across the board, every single day. Unthinkable and unsustainable top-down demands are what landed us in this nursing shortage to begin with.

No matter how many “thank you” pizza parties get thrown after this, no matter how much the media calls nurses heroes during or after this, those of us “in the know” will expect much, much more on the other side. One positive ripple effect from COVID-19 should be the complete reevaluation of health care delivery.

Lynne Nichols is a nurse practitioner from Portland. She grew up in Surry.