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Lots of new nurses, like these graduating from New York University in 2009, are helping to fill openings. (Getty Images)

Young People Put Dent In Nursing Shortage

by Julie Rovner
Dec 5, 2011

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Julie Rovner

You know that shortage of nurses people have been warning about for about the last decade or two? Fuhgeddaboudit!

That's the upshot of a study in the latest issue the policy journal Health Affairs. The authors, economists from RAND Health and Dartmouth College and a nursing professor from Vanderbilt University, found a surprising upswing in the number of young women (aged 23-26) choosing nursing as a career between 2002 and 2009.

So many young women entered the nursing workforce that "if these young nurses follow the same life-cycle employment patterns as those who preceded them... then they will be the largest cohort of registered nurses ever observed," the authors wrote. In fact, the 62 percent increase means that the ranks of registered nurses are expected to grow at roughly the same rate as the population between now and 2030.

Now clearly it is still too early to say that the problem is solved. These young nurses could still move on to other fields as they age, or leave the workforce entirely. But still, the study raises an intriguing question: How did the nation go from a shortage to, if not a surplus, then at least an apparently adequate supply of nurses?

One innovation cited by the researchers are accelerated degree programs designed to appeal to people who already have degrees in other fields. These programs can get nurses trained and ready to practice in as little as a year in some cases.

Another boost, they write, came from "information about the opportunities in nursing," such as a major recruitment campaign launched by health products giant Johnson & Johnson in 2002.

The federal government also did its part. Funding for nurse training programs tripled between 2001 and 2010, from $80 million per year to $240 million.

But there are still some significant warning signs on the horizon. One is the continuing bottleneck in nursing education, with more people wanting to become nurses than there are people to train them. In 2010, according to the study, 55,000 qualified applicants were turned away — up from 16,000 in 2003.

Another potential problem is whether the nurses now being turned out will have the right training for the nation's rapidly aging baby boomers. Last year's Affordable Care Act will require fewer hospital-based nurses and more nurses prepared to work with older patients in an outpatient setting, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Finally, a second paper in Health Affairs points out that nurses are among those people least likely to relocate to find jobs once they are trained. As a result, many parts of the country can end up with a shortage even if the overall supply appears adequate.

Researchers from New York University and the State University of New York at Buffalo suggest, in response, increasing financial aid and other educational opportunities in underserved areas.

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