The Looming Nursing Shortage and What It May Mean for You

NursingMay 30, 2017


For years, survey data from employment experts have warned about a looming nursing shortage. The shortage of qualified nurses is already having an impact on the delivery of adequate, quality healthcare. The shortage is driven by a variety of factors. Among others, experts cite the aging of the massive baby boomer generation, the rising incidence of “lifestyle” diseases (such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other serious ailments), changes in the delivery of healthcare, and even rising rates of obesity. Obesity is linked to growing numbers of patients suffering from chronic diseases.

Need Outpaces New Nurses Entering the Workforce

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing cites the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections, which indicate that job growth in the nursing profession is now growing—and will continue to grow—faster than the average for all occupations. By 2030, according to a 2012 projection published in the American Journal of Medical Quality, we will experience a nursing shortage resulting in potentially nearly one million unfilled positions across the country.

According to Health Affairs, a leading, peer-reviewed journal of health policy thought and research, hospitals have been reporting a nurse shortage since at least 1998. Although employment of nurses had increased by 2009, the long-term shortage that caused so much concern is still expected to continue through 2019, at least.

Ironically, the Great Recession, which began in late 2007, played a role in accelerating the resolution of the nursing shortage, as more institutions hired still more nurses to fill gaps in personnel. Among other explanations, it’s thought that many older nurses rejoined the workforce during this period of general economic hardship and uncertainty.

The Largest Segment of the Healthcare Workforce

According to experts affiliated with the Institute of Medicine, nurses make up the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, with 3 million RNs in the United States. They note that nurses fill roles in a wide range of workplaces, serving diverse populations. Examples include hospitals, public health centers, schools, and homes. Furthermore, RNs provide a valuable array of services, including direct patient care, health promotion, patient education, and coordination of care.

In 2010, a special committee of the Institute of Medicine, published The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. Since then experts have worked to further the lofty goals of the report. These three goals can be boiled down to better patient experience, better health of the public, and lower costs. Among other specifics, the program recommends encouraging the trend towards higher educational attainment among nurses.

The Education Imperative

In 2010, about half of the 3 million RNs in the U.S. held a baccalaureate or higher degree. By 2020, the report recommends that number should approach or exceed 80%. Clearly, possessing an advanced education is increasingly important for working nurses who wish to remain competitive.

As noted in a recent update on progress toward achieving the goals first established in 2010, nurses with advanced education will be needed to keep up with the changing demands of “a delivery system that is shifting rapidly and fundamentally.”

The implications of the looming nursing shortage are many. While it is becoming increasingly necessary to earn a baccalaureate degree, or better, in order to move up the career, the shortage also promises to create a seller’s strong market for entry-level nurses who may have only earned an associate degree initially in order to enter the profession. In this scenario, both new and experienced RNs are the sellers, and “buyers” are motivated to hire, and perhaps, to offer incentives.

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