January 12, 2007

New study lowers nurse shortage estimate

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New study lowers nurse shortage estimate

Large numbers of people entering the nursing profession in their late 20s and early 30s are helping narrow the nursing shortage, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.

Authors Peter Buerhaus, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, David Auerbach, Ph.D., of the Congressional Budget Office and Dartmouth's Douglas Staiger, Ph.D., project the substantial increase in these older individuals becoming nurses will result in a shortfall of 340,000 registered nurse vacancies by 2020 instead of a previously projected shortage of 760,000 registered nurses.

“This is a relatively new source of registered nurses who are coming into the profession from other careers or unrelated college degrees,” said Buerhaus.

“We think that economic conditions such as a decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs and increased job insecurity may be attracting some of these older individuals to nursing.

The current nursing shortage started in 1998 and has continued for the last 10 years, making it the longest-lasting nursing shortage in the past 50 years.

Inadequate nurse staffing in hospitals is associated with reductions in hospital capacity, delays in the timeliness of patient care, longer length of stay by patients, interruptions in care delivery processes, and increased risk of adverse patient outcomes, including mortality.

The issue is further complicated since large numbers of registered nurses born in the baby boomer generation are expected to retire within the next decade.

“While the study's findings are good news, looking ahead, the nation will still confront a severe shortage of nurses,” said Buerhaus. “Graduating classes of registered nurses would have to increase by as much as 50 percent over current levels in order to erase even this smaller projected shortage. So the nursing shortage seems far from over.”

The study also addresses the growing concern of the aging nurse workforce, which is an important issue for what is usually a very physically demanding career. The current average age of the registered nurse workforce is 43.5 years.

With more people starting their nursing careers at an older age, the authors project more registered nurses in their 50s than any other age group by 2012. By 2016, the average age of the nursing workforce will reach 44.9 years.

“While more older people are attracted to nursing, the number of people entering nursing in their early to mid 20s remains at its lowest point in 40 years,” said Staiger.

The study was funded by an unrestricted grant from Johnson & Johnson.