NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 8, 2009

The current economic recession has put a Band-Aid on one of the most vexing problems in health care, a shortage of nurses that has slowed care at some hospitals and forced others to turn away the ill, according to the Washington Post reports.

Over the past decade, hospitals have had trouble maintaining sufficient nursing staff, but now, some nurses are delaying retirement amid the recession, while others are resuming their careers.  As a result, hospitals nationwide are reporting few, if any, openings.

The only nurses who remain in great demand are those who work in acute-care and emergency departments.  However, the economic incentive that has swollen the nursing work force during the recession seems certain to evaporate when the economy rebounds, throwing the health care system deeper than ever into the crisis, says the Post:

  • Federal experts have predicted that the nationwide nursing shortage would grow to 275,000 by 2010 and to one million by 2020.
  • According to the American Academy of Colleges of Nursing, 27,771 qualified applicants were turned away by nursing schools in 2008 because of a lack of instructors.
  • The average age of a nursing instructor is 49, and simple economics have kept many younger nurses from becoming educators.
  • Teaching requires a master's degree or a doctorate, but the salaries many receive after they get an advanced degree are lower than what they could earn as acute-care nurses.

In March, legislation was reintroduced in Congress that aims to encourage more nurses to become instructors by forgiving loans for students who pursue advanced degrees and commit to teaching for four years.  The bill also was introduced last year but died in committee.  However, according to the Post, the bill's passage "would provide no immediate remedy once the shortage resurfaces, a prospect forecast by those enjoying a respite from the problem."

Source: Ashley Halsey III, "Jobs Scarce, Even for Nurses; Economic Crisis Freezes Field Once Short of Workers," Washington Post, April 5, 2009.

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