By Jessica Barfield

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified Oklahoma’s nursing shortage. The state, however, first identified its nursing shortage back in the early 2000’s. 

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Oklahoma ranks in the bottom four out of all fifty states for the number of nurses per 100,000 people. We have roughly 700 nurses per 100,000 people, versus the national average of 1,150.

Several factors have exacerbated the shortage, including competitive pay in neighboring states such as Texas and Arkansas, and the mental and physical exhaustion made worse during the pandemic. There is one element, however, that has remained consistent since the beginning—lack of nursing education. 

In 2018, the Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development issued a compilation brief regarding nursing professions in Oklahoma that states the current pre-licensure nursing education capacity is not meeting the demand in Oklahoma.

The brief continued to explain that in 2017, Oklahoma Bachelor’s Degree programs selected 67% of student applicants for admission, Oklahoma Associate Degree programs selected 56%, and Oklahoma Practical Nursing programs selected only 49%. Students are turned away every year simply due to a lack of educators and resources available to meet the demand.

Despite existing pressures and those created during COVID-19, student enrollment numbers continue to increase. If students can make it into, and out of these programs, healthcare service providers such as OU Health for example, have started offering programs focused on tuition reimbursement and scholarships for nurses looking to further their education.

Oklahoma City Community College student Bianey Munoz is studying towards her nursing degree.

“Since it’s so competitive I feel like there’s a lot of negativity towards wanting to join. Because it’s so stressful a lot of students stop themselves and don’t think they’d be able to do it,” Munoz said. 

Public records also suggest that Oklahoma colleges’ currently pay nursing instructors less than other fields on average, suggesting a lack of priority in hiring instructors to fill the need. Oklahoma also has one of the lowest averages nationwide for nursing educator salaries. 

Especially when the pandemic also opened the opportunity for nurses to be paid exceptional amounts, sometimes more than double educator pay, to take jobs by contract, and travel as seasonal nurses.

If more funds were put towards the nursing educators preparing students to be the future of healthcare and allowed more students into these programs as a higher priority, we may be able to see a break in the nursing shortage. 

Governor Kevin Stitt issued a State of the State on February 7, 2022, stating, “In the middle of a nursing shortage, our universities can’t be turning away qualified applicants like they are now. Instead, we need to reward universities for producing graduates in critical areas. Our state depends on it.”