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Future shortage of US nurses not as dire as first predicted

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The US healthcare system is expected to be short of nurses in the next decade but not to the dire levels predicted a few years ago, according to experts.

They said an “unexpected surge of entry of new registered nurses into the workforce” – partly driven by the global economic slowdown – would “more than offset” the numbers of staff currently leaving.

“It’s important to keep in mind this doesn’t get us out of the woods, the woods just are not as dark and scary as they appeared”

Peter Buerhaus

US economists had previously been predicting a shortage of hundreds of thousands of nurses as the “baby boomer” generation retired in large numbers.

Currently, there are more than one million registered nurses over age 50 in the US and most are expected to leave the workforce during the next 10 years.

But national initiatives to promote nursing as a career and more students choosing nursing after the 2008 recession have dramatically changed that outlook, according to researchers.

They found nursing school enrolments doubled during the 2000s, as have the number of young registered nurses in the workforce.

The new analysis was carried out by nursing workforce experts from Montana State University, Peter Buerhaus and David Auerbach, with Douglas Staiger from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

They looked at national census and workforce data spanning the period from 1979 to 2013 to forecast the size and age distribution of the nursing workforce to the year 2030.

Dr Auerbach said: “Overall, we project that the registered nursing workforce will increase from roughly 2.7 million full-time equivalent registered nurses in 2013 to 3.3 million in 2030.

“However, this is contingent on people still entering the nursing profession at the current rate – which is higher than anyone anticipated, he said.

“The unexpected surge of entry of new registered nurses into the workforce will lead to continued net growth of the nursing workforce”

Study authors

Professor Buerhaus added: “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.

“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,” he said.

The dramatic decline in the US nursing workforce, which was predicted a decade ago, was based on baby-boomer nurses retiring in greater numbers than new nurses entering the workforce.

“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,” said Professor Buerhaus.

The researchers also noted that the recession may have helped, with nurses nearing retirement opting to continue working to help support family incomes and students viewing nursing courses as offering a good chance of employment.

However, they cautioned that almost 40% of registered nurses were over the age of 50 and the dramatic growth in nursing school enrolment during the 2000s has “begun to level off”.  

The analysis has been published in Medical Care, the official journal of the American Public Health Association.

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