STEPHENVILLE, Texas — Placing her stethoscope around her neck, Kristen Peacock walks up to her patient’s bed and reaches down to check his pulse. The young, soon-to-be-nurse is met simply with a blank stare and mechanical blinks from the eyes of her robotic training patient.

“You actually at some point forget that they’re not real because they can kind of do everything,” said Peacock with a laugh as she noted the vitals coming off of screens around the bed.

Peacock has been working with those fake patients inside the nursing building at Tarleton State University for several years as she trains for her future career. But the days of symptoms being programmed into a simulator by her professors are almost over. 

“I graduate in May,” said Peacock.

After she walks across the stage and graduates this spring, it’s likely Peacock will have little time to rest before the job offers start coming in. Her job hunt will likely be short as the country is in serious need of nurses. 

Kristen Peacock tends to her robot patient. (Brian Scott/ Spectrum News 1)

“Pretty often I hear from hospital CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc., and we can’t produce enough nurses to meet their current need. And this was pre-pandemic,” said Dr. James Hurley, Tarleton State president. 

Hurley’s school isn’t the only one facing that situation as colleges and medical providers across the country continue to report a shortage of nurses and future nurses ready to enter the health care system. The situation will likely only worsen as the pandemic stretches staff in hospitals even further and forces some nurses into early retirement.

According to Nurse Journal, the shortage stems from several factors including nursing school enrollment not keeping up with demand, a lack of nursing school faculty, a rapidly growing retirement rate, and an aging population in the country as baby boomers age and require more medical attention. The group also rates Texas as fourth worst in the nation for the ratio of nurses to population in the state.

This was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which has the potential to leave the system more stressed than ever and potentially affect the appeal of nursing as a career field.

“We just have a critical shortage of health care providers across the country; we’re certainly seeing it here in Texas,” said Dr. Hurley.

Schools and health care providers across the country are working to combat the low numbers by introducing new opportunities and scholarships into the field. At Tarleton, Dr. Hurley said the program is working to expand the nursing program by expanding the Fort Worth campus and giving students new opportunities to learn health care in the DFW area. Dr. Hurley said money is really a key factor for all nursing programs though.

“The cost of producing a nurse, if you will, or a nursing graduate is more than other degrees,” said Dr. Hurley.

Beyond that, it comes down to igniting a passion for nursing in the next generation of students. Peacock said she and her fellow students in the program have no trouble with that.

As they’ve watched the nurses and doctors in the field struggle to keep up and fight back against the COVID-19 virus, Peacock said she hasn’t become nervous for the field she’s about to step into, she’s only become more driven.

“With this pandemic they took it like it was just a new challenge and they ran with it and it made me very, very proud,” said Peacock. “It was kind of like, ‘put me in, coach! Get me in there, this is what I signed up for,’ and I can make a difference.”