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New studies show scope of Kentucky’s health care worker shortage, as a coalition promotes solutions

The commonwealth faces long-term shortages of health care workers. The Kentucky Hospital Association released new data Thursday about the scope of the problem and offered recommended solutions.
Kentucky Hospital Association
The commonwealth faces long-term shortages of health care workers. The Kentucky Hospital Association released new data Thursday about the scope of the problem and offered recommended solutions.

The Kentucky Hospital Association and a team of partners are working on solutions to the state’s shortage of nurses and other health care workers. New research sheds light on the problem.

The association released its annual Workforce Survey Report Thursday.

“Kentucky is suffering from an acute shortage of health care workers,” KHA President and CEO Nancy Galvagni said at a news conference Thursday. “And while this is a national problem, it has hit our state particularly hard.”

Here are several key findings from KHA’s survey of over 100 hospitals:

  • Estimates indicate Kentucky hospitals had close to 13,000 job vacancies at the end of 2022 — a workforce vacancy rate of 15% for the state.
  • Almost 5,000 of those job openings were for registered nurses, or RNs.
  • Another 300 were for licensed practical nurses, representing nearly 21% of Kentucky’s LPN workforce. 
  • Vacancy rates are especially high for medical-surgical, critical care and psychiatric nurses.
  • Among non-nurse hospital staff, emergency medical services, or EMS, workers, including EMTs, had the highest vacancy rate at about 19%. 
  • Respiratory therapists also have a high vacancy rate, totaling 15%.

Galvagni said the workforce shortages affect patients, staff and hospitals.“These vacancies mean longer wait times for treatment. For caregivers, it can lead to burnout. And for hospitals, it means higher expenses for labor,” she said. “The current situation is serious.”

A related report the KHA commissioned from the company GlobalData predicts that Kentucky’s nursing shortage will hold steady, with 2022’s shortfall of around 6,000 RNs roughly matching 2035’s projected shortfall.

The GlobalData report also anticipates Kentucky’s shortage of LPNs will worsen, rising from a deficit of 760 full-time workers in 2022 to 3,190 by 2035.

“By 2035, we will only have 90% of the RNs needed for patient care and only 76% of the LPNs that are needed,” Galvagni said. “Kentucky would need to increase the number of RNs by about 21% each year, and increase the number of LPNs by 63% each year, to fill the gap.”

The KHA’s workforce committee is tackling that challenge with a team of experts that includes nurses and hospital administrators, as well as representatives from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Their focuses include expanding the state’s health care workforce pipeline, removing barriers to health care education and retaining hospitals’ current workforce.

Galvagni highlighted several recommendations for how partners in the education system and the Kentucky Legislature can help reduce the shortages.

On the education front, the recommendations include increasing nursing school faculty, making it easier for students to transfer academic credits between programs, expanding LPN training in high school and supporting more health care apprenticeship programs.

Ashli Watts, the Kentucky Chamber’s president and CEO, said one initiative they’ve already launched is a talent pipeline management program for the commonwealth’s hospital systems.

“In just the last couple of months, we have been able to enhance K-12 exposure, engagement and experience in the hospital environment,” she said at Thursday’s news conference in Louisville.

On the legislative side, the KHA recommendations include providing further funding for health care-related scholarships and giving hospital staff more protections against workplace violence.

The Legislature’s annual lawmaking session begins in January.

“COVID didn’t create this problem. It just pushed it off the cliff,” state Sen. Stephen Meredith, a Republican from Leitchfield, said at Thursday’s KHA news conference. “But from adversity always comes opportunity, if you look for it. And I think the collaboration we've seen in this particular effort has been second to none. It really sets a standard for the future for all workforce issues.”

Realistically, he said it may take Kentucky a decade to get where it needs to be on this issue, but they have a path forward.

Morgan is Louisville Public Media's health reporter. Email Morgan at