Health Care's Human Crisis: The American Nursing Shortage

    • December 31, 2002

The current nursing drought is not like previous shortages, it is about to get worse, and the tried and true solutions of the past are unlikely to solve it.

Those are the principal findings of a new report, "Health Care's Human Crisis: The American Nursing Shortage," funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

To some degree, the shortfall is a demographic phenomenon. Nurses are growing older. The average age of a nurse in the United States is 44, and many nurses are expected to retire within the next decade, or soon thereafter.

At the same time, members of the baby boom generation are beginning to enter their senior years. They can be expected to place increasing pressure on an already creaky health care system.

But a profound shift in attitudes lies at the heart of the present-day shortage. "Previous nursing shortages were the result of mismatches between supply and demand," says Edward O'Neil, Ph.D., M.P.A., one of the authors of the report. Nursing is, and always has been, a profession dominated by females, he notes, but women now have more educational and occupational alternatives. Given the choice between nursing and more attractive career opportunities, women increasingly choose the latter, he and co-author Bobbi Kimball, R.N., M.B.A., conclude. "Nursing has simply become less and less attractive to women," O'Neil says.

Clearly, O'Neil and Kimball suggest, new solutions are required.

We have prepared a comprehensive report on this issue, including an interview with the study's authors, a summary of the report's main recommendations, and a graphic snapshot of the nursing workforce in 15 major U.S. markets.

For those who believe that the effects of the shortage will not be felt until some ill-defined time in the far-off future, Steven Schroeder, M.D., former president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, challenges you to think again.

"I believe that consumers don't just perceive the nursing shortage as an abstraction or a problem for hospital human resources departments to handle but are already feeling its detrimental effect on the quality of care that they receiveat the bedside," he says in his introduction to the report. And he warns: "We must act soon."