Stefaniak points out that while there are many variables that go into poor patient outcomes, including poor communication, failure to follow established policies and procedures, and other health care staffing shortages, many hospital problems do stem from the nursing shortage.
"Nursing is involved with nearly all patient care activities in some fashion, directly or indirectly. Therefore, of course, the shortage of these vital people is key to patient outcomes as recent research has clearly demonstrated," she said.
The report says there are 126,000 nursing positions unfilled in hospitals nationwide. Ninety percent of long-term care organizations lack sufficient nurses "to provide even the most basic care" and some home-health care agencies are being forced to refuse new patients.
With the aging of the nation's baby boomers and nurses themselves, it has been estimated that by 2020 "there will be at least 400,000 fewer nurses available to provide care than will be needed," the report says.
To remedy the problem, an obvious solution is to train more nurses.
Last week President Bush signed a $30 million bill, calling for more subsidies for more nursing education and recruitment.
But experts believe this is easier said than done. One challenge is the difficulty in obtaining admission to nursing programs, since most programs limit class size to 10 students for one faculty member.
This makes it very difficult to train more nurses, as nursing schools cannot expand their capacity except by hiring more faculty, educators say.
"This ratio is, in my view, archaic," said Bradford Kirkman-Liff, professor of business at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"With modern educational techniques such as the Internet for distance learning, videotape lectures, and other tools, nursing schools could probably have a 12 to 1 or even 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio without lowering the quality of nursing instruction," he added.
Another problem is the strict educational requirements, which have been raised as medicine and health care have become more complex.
"One way to address the nursing shortage is for community colleges to work with nursing schools to develop some kind of 'pre-nursing' program so that recent immigrants to the United States and students from minority backgrounds who lack adequate high school education can have one or two years or post-high school education before applying into nursing schools," said Kirkman-Liff.
Hospitals and universities have begun to look into more imaginative approaches in an effort to meet the current nursing demands.
The University of Rochester School of Nursing has launched an accelerated bachelors and masters programs that allows non-nurses to enter the field in as little as one year, as opposed to beginning an entire undergraduate degree from scratch.
One local Virginia hospital is providing a free, weeklong "nursing camp" to high school students, and the Methodist Medical Center of Dallas is even offering free Volkswagen Beetles to nurses who sign on before the year's end.
And some hospitals, such as the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, are relying more than ever on recruiting out of state and foreign professionals to fill the gap. St. Elizabeth's offers free housing for new nurses for up to six months, as well as tuition reimbursement.
Thus far, the methods have been successful in lowering the shortage of nurses.
"Nursing is going to be competing with other professions for the best and brightest," said O'Leary. "But this is an attractive profession. This is a kind of thing where if you care about other people and you want to make a difference, this is a profession where you can really make a difference, but it has to occur in the context of something that is positive."
Rhonda Mann of WCVB-TV, Boston, Kathryn Barrett, of WVEC-TV, Norfolk, Va., and Janet St. James of WFAA-TV, Dallas, contributed to this report.