(U-WIRE) STORRS, Conn. — A nationwide nursing shortage that began a few years ago continues to grow, and experts predict that the worst is still to come.

According to Kathe Gable, director of public affairs for the University of Connecticut School of Nursing, the nursing shortage has been affecting the west for the past five to 10 years, but the problem now is spreading.

“Twenty years ago there was a shortage, but this one will surpass that both in duration and in how much it affects health care in general,” Gable said. “We haven't felt the full impact of the shortage yet.”

Gable mentioned a survey put out by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing stating there are currently about 126,000 nurses needed to fill vacant seats in hospitals, and 75 percent of hospital vacancies are for nurses.

The survey also predicts there will be a 20 percent shortage in the number of nurses needed by 2020, which means more than 400,000 registered nurses will be needed nationwide by that year.

Gable offered several reasons for the shortage, including a changing demographic. She noted that as the aging population increases, the need for nurses also increases. Another possible reason is the expectations of those entering the nursing profession.

“The level of care that nurses provide can be very demanding and intense, and this sometimes leads to job burnout and dissatisfaction among nurses,” Gable said.

Laura Dzurec, dean of the School of Nursing, suggested that several reasons for the nursing shortage are fundamental structural problems.

“Nursing is a largely invisible profession, and most of the time nurses are not recognized for the incredible amount of work they do,” Dzurec said.

Dzurec noted that the problem starts at a college level because students interested in nursing do not always understand the basic knowledge required to be a nurse.

“We do lose a percentage of students every year because it is a rigorous program with a lot of math and science courses,” Dzurec said. “I think the reality of nursing for some people is too much. You have to be ready.”

Dzurec said because of the shortage, nurses now are working very hard with no time for breaks and are becoming frustrated and burnt out in the system.

“Consequently, the need for nurses becomes greater because everyone is stressed out,” Dzurec said.

Universities and colleges throughout the country are feeling the burden of the nursing shortage as well.

Gable said enrollment in nursing programs is down across the nation, although UConn is a little above the national average.

“We still need and want to boost enrollment, though,” Gable said.

According to Gable, there are about 400 students in the School of Nursing, including undergraduates, master's students and Ph.D. students. About seven to 10 percent of these students are male.

According to Dzurec, UConn is in the process of instituting the Basic Nursing Certificate Program in Storrs, Conn. This program, which may be ready on a small scale by January, will allow students with degrees in other fields to pursue a professional degree in nursing.

Dzurec noted how these students, having already obtained a degree in another field, would bring a wealth of knowledge to the field of nursing.

“We need nurses who are able to coordinate, lead, direct and are well prepared,” Dzurec said. “This program will create well-prepared nurses and hopefully help the nursing shortage we are experiencing