NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Emerging Shortage Of Registered Nurses

March 23, 1999

Registered nurses -- those who are highly trained to serve in emergency and operating rooms and in pediatric wards for high- risk babies -- are in short supply today and the signs are that the situation will only get worse. Experts say that many are reaching retirement age and their potential replacements are following other career paths.

  • The 500 or so U.S. colleges that produce nurses with bachelor's and master's degrees report a 5.5 percent fall-off in enrollees last year -- the fourth decline in as many years.
  • The average age of nurses is 45 -- about a decade older than the population -- and they will be retiring along with the baby-boomers, who will eventually need their care.
  • Some nursing colleges admit they are dipping deeper into their waiting lists and enrolling less-qualified candidates.
  • Some hard-pressed hospitals are offering bonuses in the thousands of dollars to lure qualified registered nurses.

The shortage was first noticed in California last year and has spread to virtually all acute-care hospitals where patients go with strokes, heart attacks and the need for major surgery. Such institutions employ nearly two-thirds of all registered nurses.

The shortage is so serious that St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, Calif., announced last week that it would close part of its acute-care space for lack of registered nurses, and it is raising pay for critical-care nurses by $5 an hour, to more than $20 an hour.

Hospitals report that it takes an average of 90 days to fill vacancies for clinical care and operating room nurses, as well as nurse managers.

Women still make up 90 percent of all nurses, and registered nurses often make $30 an hour or more.

Source: Peter T. Kilborn, "Registered Nurses in Short Supply at Hospitals Nationwide," New York Times, March 23, 1999.


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