Study Puts Brakes on Nursing Shortage
Researchers mine census data, suggest impending RN shortage won't become reality.
Recruitment campaigns, 2-year associate degrees spurred interest in nursing programs.
By Catlin Nalley
A surge of young nurses (age 23-26) entering the profession signals hope the long-predicted shortage of registered nurses original expected to begin in 2020 might be avoided.
A study reported in the December issue of Health Affairs shows a 62 percent increase in the number of young nurses entering the workforce between 2002 and 2009, at a rate not seen since the 1970s.
"This is a very welcome and surprising development," said David Auerbach, lead author and health economist at RAND Health. "Instead of worrying about a decline, we are now growing the supply of nurses."
While Auerbach and co-authors Peter Buerhaus of Vanderbilt University and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth College find this change promising, they said it is not guaranteed to continue.
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Vigorous recruitment campaigns and the availability of 2-year associate degrees have spurred interest in nursing programs.
In addition, the recession has made nursing an appealing career choice. While other fields have declined, healthcare continues to grow despite economic hardships.
The researchers utilized 35 years of annual survey data from two Census Bureau surveys, the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey, to evaluate the state of the nursing community, past, present and future.
Their analysis of the data provides a picture of the age and number of RNs per capita through 2030.
In 2009, there were about 165,000 full-time equivalent, young RNs in the workforce, up from a low of 102,000 in 2002, according to the study.
These results suggest a reverse in the trends 10 years ago, which saw a significant decrease in the number of young women becoming RNs due to expanding career opportunities in other industries.
The number of RNs under age 30 dropped from 30 percent in 1983 to 12 percent in 1998, according to the study.
These indicators led to the prediction that if trends did not shift, the country would see a shortage of 20 percent by 2020. Instead, the RN workforce is now expected to grow at roughly the same rate as the population through 2030. While this newest study shows such a reversal, challenges remain that could affect the future of nursing.
Appropriate training, mobility, and hiring "bottlenecks," must all be taken in consideration when looking forward.
It is not only critical that there are enough individuals to fill positions; the labor force must also meet the population needs.
The Institute of Medicine recently released two reports noting the need for RNs who are trained in geriatrics as well as those who are able to work in ambulatory settings.
"It is great to have the quantity, but if we don't educate nurses for the positions that the healthcare delivery system requires, then this is a problem that needs to be addressed," Buerhaus said.
A different study led by Christine Kovner of New York University, also published in the December Health Affairs, looked at the low "mobility" of new RNs.
A survey of newly licensed RNs in 15 states found that 52.5 percent work within 40 miles of where they attended high school. These results suggest a problem could arise if a more even distribution of the labor force is found.
Next to teaching, nursing has the lowest mobility of any profession, according to the study.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the number of qualified applicants turned away from entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs grew from 16,000 in 2003 to 38,000 in 2007 and to 55,000 in 2010.
The impact the economy and the challenges faced by new grads will have on the continued growth of the nursing profession, cannot yet be determined, according to Auerbach and his colleagues.
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Time Will Tell
This study reveals a dramatic change in nursing trends and calls into question the shortage that has been looming overhead for many years. However, the future remains uncertain.
Many factors will determine whether this upward trend continues or if the nursing industry will revert back to its previous momentum.
"Nevertheless, at least in the near future, there is likely to be continued growth of the nurse workforce, at a rate projected to grow more rapidly during the next 2 decades than previously anticipated," the researchers conclude.
Catlin Nalley is editorial assistant at ADVANCE.