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Nursing Workforce Getting More Diverse, Older

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, March 29, 2010

An extensive federal survey of nursing trends from 2004 to 2008 shows a growing diversity of backgrounds in an increasing registered nurse workforce.

The report—entitled The Registered Nurse Population: Initial Findings from the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses—also reveals a trend of more highly educated, male, and foreign-trained nurses.

The trends, however, showed dramatic increases among older registered nurses, prompting concerns from officials about retirements impeding the growth of the nursing workforce.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, released the report this month. Published every four years by HRSA's Bureau of Health Professions, the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses is what officials describe as the preeminent source of statistics on trends over time for the nation's largest health profession.

The report also includes comparisons from eight recurring surveys, 1980 through 2008.

The report showed that:

  • The number of licensed registered nurses in the U.S. grew to a new high of 3.1 million between 2004 and 2008.

  • 16.8% of nurses in 2008 were Asian, Black/African-American/American Indian/Alaska Native, and/or Hispanic—an increase from 12.2% in 2004.

  • An estimated 170,235 registered nurses (RN) living in the US received their initial nursing education in another country or a US territory, comprising 5.6% of the US nursing population, compared with 3.7% in 2007. About half of the internationally educated RNs living in the US in 2008 were from the Philippines, with another 11.5% from Canada, and 9.4% from India.

  • Women outnumber men by more than 15 to 1 in the overall number of RNs, but among those who became RNs after 1990, there is one male RN to every 10 women, the report stated.

  • The average age of all licensed RNs increased to 47 years in 2008 from 46.8 in 2004; this represents "stabilization after many years of continuing large increases in the average age," the report stated.

Nearly 45% of RNs were 50 years of age or older in 2008, a dramatic increase from 33% in 2000 and 25% in 1980. "The aging trends in the RN population has raised concerns that future retirements could substantially reduce the size of the US nursing workforce at the same time the general population is growing older and the proportion who are elderly is increasing," the report said.

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