Recession may temporarily resolve nursing shortage

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The slumping economy has led to surging nurse employment rates that could soon end the nation’s 11-year shortage, according to a study recently released in the journal Health Affairs.

The study examined the recession’s effect on the nursing profession and reported almost 250,000 nurses entered the workforce between 2007 and 2008. This is the most significant two-year increase in RN employment in the last 30 years.

The study found nurses over the age of 50 made up more than half of the increase—many of whom delayed retirement or rejoined hospital settings to compensate for spouses losing jobs or out of fear that they might lose their jobs. In addition, in 2008, there was a hike in foreign born RNs (48,000), RNs between ages 23–25 (130,000), and RNs who came from nonhospital settings (50,000).

Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, lead author of the study and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, says the unprecedented surge in employment is likely to ease or end the nursing shortage in many parts of the country.

But only momentarily.

“While we see this easing, people need to remember it is likely to be temporary, and last only as long as the economy is bad,” says Buerhaus, who projects a nursing shortage will return in 2018 and develop into a loss of 260,000 RNs by 2025.

Buerhaus and a team of researchers analyzed data from 1973 through 2008 for the study. This included nationally representative surveys of more than 100,000 people that are administered monthly by the U.S. Census Bureau. The surveys comprised information of individuals between ages 23–64 who reported occupations as RNs.

The study findings present healthcare policymakers and providers with opportunities to strengthen the workforce, says Buerhaus.

For instance, policymakers must consider the majority of nurses who are supplying the market.

“Older nurses are eventually going to retire, and once they do they will be lost to the workforce unless there are extraordinary circumstances,” Buerhaus says. “That retirement will occur over the latter part of the next decade and lead to a shortage of nurses because the demand for healthcare will increase.”

Boosting the capacity of nursing education programs is necessary to finding a balance, he says. If more nurses can accelerate into the labor force, they can replace the aging Baby Boomers.

Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, CNL, director of the Nursing Leadership Institute and associate professor at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing in Boca Raton, FL, also emphasizes the need for sufficient education as the workforce continues to age.

“It is important we ensure that professional knowledge gets transferred to our next generation of nurses,” she says.

Still, right now many novice but educated nurses are finding job opportunities are slim.

“With an increased availability of experienced nurses, many hospitals have elected to either reduce the number of new graduates they are hiring this year or are not hiring new graduates at all,” says Sherman.

Despite this, she notes nursing leaders are now able to staff their units with experienced nurses, and turnover in most employment settings has dropped significantly. Furthermore, traditionally hard-to-fill units, such as medical surgical and telemetry, have benefited from these trends.

“In academic settings, we are seeing more nurses returning to school to continue their education and make themselves more marketable,” says Sherman. “This is very good for the profession.”

Looking to the future, Buerhaus recommends healthcare providers make efforts to improve their ergonomic environment and minimize physical strains on the workforce. As a result, seasoned nurses may be less likely to depart their hospitals once spouses are re-employed and the economy picks up.

Novice or experienced, all nurses are needed to face the challenges ahead.

“Healthcare reform debate is moving forward and my hope is that policymakers and legislatures will realize that unless there is an investment in the nursing workforce, the goal to expand healthcare coverage and increase quality will not be met,” Buerhaus says. “If we expect large shortages to develop, they will be even larger when 45–55 million people are granted economic access to healthcare.”