Recession May Temporarily Resolve Nursing Shortage

Keri Mucci, June 17, 2009

The slumping economy has led to surging nurse employment rates that could soon end the nation's 11-year shortage, according to a study released Friday in Health Affairs.

The study that examines the recession's effect on the nursing profession reports almost 250,000 nurses entered the workforce between 2007 and 2008. This is the most significant two-year increase in RN employment in the last 30 years.

The study cites nurses over the age of 50 make up more than half of the increase—many of whom delayed retirement or rejoined hospital settings to compensate for spouses losing jobs or out of fear that they might lose their jobs. In addition, in 2008, there was a hike in foreign born RNs (48,000), RNs between ages 23–25 (130,000), and RNs who came from nonhospital settings (50,000).

Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, lead author of the study and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, says the unprecedented surge in employment is likely to ease or end the nursing shortage in many parts of the country.

But only momentarily.

"While we see this easing, people need to remember it is likely to be temporary, and last only as long as the economy is bad," says Buerhaus, who projects a nursing shortage will return in 2018 and develop into a loss of 260,000 RNs by 2025.

Buerhaus and a team of researchers analyzed data from 1973 through 2008 for the study. This included nationally representative surveys of more than 100,000 people that are administered monthly by the U.S. Census Bureau. The surveys comprised information of individuals between ages 23–64 who reported occupations as RNs.

The study findings present healthcare policymakers and providers with opportunities to strengthen the workforce, says Buerhaus.

For instance, policymakers must consider the majority of nurses who are supplying the market.

"Older nurses are eventually going to retire, and once they do they will be lost to the workforce unless there are extraordinary circumstances," Buerhaus says. "That retirement will occur over the latter part of the next decade and lead to a shortage of nurses because the demand for healthcare will increase."

Boosting the capacity of nursing education programs is necessary to finding a balance, he says. If more nurses can accelerate into the labor force, they can replace the aging Baby Boomers.


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