November 14, 2003

Buerhaus: Nursing shortage temporarily slowed, but not over

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Peter I. Buerhaus, Ph.D.

Buerhaus: Nursing shortage temporarily slowed, but not over

Peter I. Buerhaus, Ph.D., Valere Potter Professor of Nursing and senior associate Dean for Research at the School of Nursing, has released new data about significant changes in the nationwide hospital nursing shortage in an article printed in the November/December issue of Health Affairs.

Buerhaus announced his findings in the article, “Is the Current Shortage of Hospital Nurses Ending? Emerging Trends in the Employment and Earnings of Registered Nurses,” at a press conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. The article was co-authored by Douglas Staiger, Ph.D., professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and David Auerbach, Ph.D., an Associate Analyst in the Health and Human Resources Division of the Congressional Budget Office.

Buerhaus said their joint research outlines how in 2002, hospital registered nurse (RN) employment and earnings rose dramatically, as more than 104,000 nurses entered the workforce. The demand for hospital RNs pushed earnings up nearly 5 percent and two times the rate of RN wages in non-hospital settings. The research also shows older, married RNs over the age of 50, and foreign-born nurses, accounted for nearly all of the increase in employment.

“This is what we’ve been predicting, and this shows a view of the future,” said Buerhaus.

Buerhaus said this influx of older and foreign-born workers has temporarily slowed the growth of the shortage of hospital nurses that first started back in 1998. Though it’s a glimmer of good news, after an intense push by numerous health- related agencies to find and hire more nurses, Buerhaus warns that it doesn’t mean the shortage is over.

“This was a very large infusion of registered nurses, but there is no evidence that the shortage is over,” said Buerhaus. “We will need dramatic efforts to increase the production of new nurses into the workforce if we are to replace the large numbers soon to be retiring.”

Buerhaus and his colleagues said those efforts should include increasing the flow of RNs into the workforce, retaining older RN’s, and recognizing the role that foreign-born RNs play in providing nursing care in the United States.

Throughout the next 20 years, the federal government estimates that the demand for RN’s will increase 40 percent, with the majority of this employment growth occurring in hospitals. Meanwhile, the number of older RNs is expected to peak in the year 2010 and decline thereafter as large numbers of nurses start to retire. In the absence of a corresponding increase in the supply of RNs, further shortages and upward pressure on RN wages are likely in the future,” Buerhaus said.

The work done by Buerhaus and his colleagues was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, using data from the Current Population Survey, a household-based survey, which provides a large representative sample of nursing personnel across many years and can be used to analyze nurse employment and earnings.

Health Affairs is a bimonthly multidisciplinary journal of health policy, thought, and research. Selected articles from the current issue are available at