Understanding the Nursing Shortage

Journalists, public health departments, medical schools and nursing organizations are all talking about the nursing shortage, and for good reason: it affects every one of us. While it’s good news for students who want to pursue a degree in nursing — they’ve got lots of job options and competitive salaries coming their way — it’s bad news for the elderly, baby boomers, health care facilities, doctors, and other patients wanting personalized care. When registered nurses are stretched too thin, everyone from patients to doctors to administrators to the general — even healthy — public are affected.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, RNs “constitute the largest single healthcare profession in the United States.” And while nursing shortages have occurred throughout the 20th century in this country, our current predicament is a little more severe. As baby boomers — the largest generation right now — age, they’ll require more health care and more long-term medical attention. From home health care to more frequent check-ups and more serious ailments, the baby boomer population is putting quite a strain on the nursing shortage. Baby boomers are also retiring at an increasingly rapid rate, leaving open positions they once held in health care.But besides the baby boomers, tight budgets and a suffering economy also play a role in the nursing shortage.

As governments and other financiers have to trim their budgets, hospitals and other medical facilities are losing funding dramatically. Since nurses make up the largest group in the health care industry, they take up a large part of the budget. ABC reports that spending money on nurses can save money in the long-term, but it may be hard for facilities to scrape together the cash right now. Nursing schools are having an extremely difficult time dealing with the nursing shortage, too. While they are trying to recruit new nursing students in order to ease the shortage, their budgets have been slashed as well, and they are experiencing a faculty shortage that makes it impossible for them to keep up with the ideal enrollment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is very positive. Jobs are expected to grow 22% from 2008-2018, in physicians’ offices, home health care systems, nursing care facilities, employment services and both public and private hospitals. More jobs are expected to be available in nursing homes and long-term facilities, rather than in hospitals, which are forced to discharge patients early.

In the meantime, the stress put on existing RNs is mounting, and some feel that the shortage is only going to get worse until the economy balances out and funding returns to nursing schools.