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QUALITY: Temporary Relief in Nursing Shortage Won't Fix Bigger Problems

April 6, 2009 - 12:47pm

We've all heard of the national nursing shortage, so why are newer nurses currently finding it so hard to get a job?

The answer lies in the economic recession and a temporary increase in the number of experienced, working nurses. As people feel the financial strain brought on by the current economic downturn, more of them, including nurses, are returning to work.

"We've got college costs in three years and our retirement plans are losing money," Tammy Frankauski, a mother of three who returned to work, told the Washington Post. "It's easier to keep ahead than risk falling behind, and you want to be prepared in case anything happens."

The nursing shortage has been a big problem for the past decade, and it's forecasted to get a lot worse in the next 20 years or so. In the past, hospitals have gone out of their way to recruit nurses and incentivize them to stay-offering signing bonuses, vacations, and on a positive note, quality initiatives.

However, hospitals are now actually turning away nurse applicants and reporting fewer job openings.

Problem solved? Not exactly. The return to work is a temporary financial incentive, so an economic upswing may well cause nurses whose return was only temporary to once again vacate their posts. And that scenario is not going to come at a good time—the aging baby boomer population is expected to significantly increase the need for health care resources in the near future. As the Institute of Medicine's report Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce reminds us, 78-million baby boomers are going to start reaching age 65 in 2011. Baby boom nurses-the largest segment of the population-are going to retire. On top of that, a shortage of nursing instructors means that recruiting new nurses is going to be a difficult task. According to the Post, the American Academy of Colleges of Nursing reported that nursing schools turned away 27,771 qualified applicants last year because they didn't have enough instructors.

The nursing shortage hasn't been fixed, it's been temporarily hidden. We've got to be ready when the bubble bursts, and the best way to do that is by making sure the nursing shortage is addressed as health reformers work on rebalancing our work force to have adequate incentives for primary care, care coordination—and the nurses needed to fulfill those goals.