Calling the Shots: Nursing News and Notes

New Nurse Workforce Numbers ‘Not as Dark and Scary’

New Nurse Workforce Numbers ‘Not as Dark and Scary’

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What a difference a decade makes. Thanks to several events — some intentional, others not so deliberate — the looming nursing shortage is looking less threatening. This welcome turn-of-events is reported by researchers in the October issue of Medical Care, a journal of the American Public Health Association.

Nurse managers may breathe a collective sigh of relief. But let’s not get too lackadaisical, nursing economist and study coauthor Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, warns.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this doesn’t get us out of the woods, the woods just are not as dark and scary as they appeared,” says Buerhaus, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University. “We still project the nation will have a shortage of around 130,000 nurses by 2025, which is by no means a small number, but not the overwhelming shortage that we had once anticipated.”

What the Study Found

Buerhaus, along with lead author David Auerbach, PhD, a healthcare economist affiliated with the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies, and Douglas Staiger, PhD, a healthcare economist from Dartmouth College, conducted their new analysis to update the dire predictions of a decade ago. Back then, economists were eyeing masses of Baby Boomers on the verge of retirement—nurses among them—and predicting a shortage of hundreds of thousands of RNs to care for them.

But when researchers looked anew at the numbers, they found a stronger flow of new RNs entering the nursing workforce than anyone had expected.

 “Overall, we project that the registered nursing workforce will increase from roughly 2.7 million full-time equivalent RNs in 2013 to 3.3 million in 2030,” they report. “The unexpected surge of entry of new RNs into the workforce will lead to continued net growth of the nursing workforce.”

Where Did the RNs Come From?

Researchers attribute the influx of new blood into the profession to two factors: national initiatives to promote nursing as a career and the economic recession of 2008.

“Seeing this coming cliff in nursing, there were national campaigns to encourage more people to go into nursing, which helped provide information about the nursing profession and create interest in a nursing career,” says Buerhaus.

“And as the health care industry continued to hire people while other industries were laying people off, students started migrating towards degrees that offered a better chance at getting a good-paying job, and a job that was likely to bring personal satisfaction and reward.”

Over the first decade of the 2000s, enrollment in nursing programs doubled, according to the study.  So did the number of young RNs in the field.

Meanwhile, many veteran Baby Boomer RNs decided to delay retirement, although no one expects their postponed exits to last forever. The number of nurses leaving the workforce each year is projected to steadily grow from around 40,000 in 2010 to double that by 2020, Auerbach says. Currently, 40% of RNs are older than age 50.

A Rapidly Evolving Health Care System is Difficult to Predict

The research team cites a recent forecast from the U.S. Health Resource and Services Administration that, in the year 2025, the supply of RNs will fall 128,000 short of the demand for RNs. The researchers also emphasize that the heftier-than-expected size of the RN workforce cited in the current study is “contingent on new entry into nursing continuing at its current rate.”

In other words, if young people’s interest in nursing continues, the health care system is going to be a lot better off than we once feared. If there is a shortage ten years from now, demand is expected to exceed supply by about four percent.

But, as the past decade has taught us, things could easily change.

As the research team concludes, “Such projections are uncertain in the face of a rapidly evolving health care delivery system.”

What are your thoughts on the current and future state of the RN workforce?  Are changes in the supply of nurses affecting you or your facility?  Leave us a comment below.  

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