Though doctors may receive all the praise, the American medical system would be nowhere without nurses. Anywhere you receive medical treatment, you come in contact with nurses: at hospitals, private practices, health clinics, care facilities, and virtually all other health care organizations. Nurses are necessary for thousands of essential medical and non-medical tasks, from monitoring anesthesia and running blood tests to checking with visiting family members and delivering extra blankets and pillows. Health care without nurses is unimaginable ― but in many medical facilities around the country, it might soon be a reality.
America has experienced a number of nurse surpluses and shortages, but for the past 15 years, medical facilities around the country have endured a noticeable lack of sufficient nursing staff. In fact, this dearth is not unique to the U.S. ― several countries have reported an alarming decrease in the numbers of students graduating from nursing programs. However, unlike nurse shortages of the past, the current crisis is not merely a scarcity of nurses overall; rather, it is the unavailability of specialized nurses with particular skills and experience.
America’s nursing famine shouldn’t be a surprise. The causes of the shortage are somewhat well-known, but few organizations are doing much to counteract them. Until we fix the following problems, the U.S. will continue to lack the nurses it needs to have a well-functioning health care system.
The Nurse Population Is Aging
The most pressing problem of all is the advancing age of the nurse population. In the 1980s and 1990s, the average age of American nurses was about 37.4; comparatively, in 2010, most nurses are nearly 45 years old― an increase of more than seven years. The number of nurses in their 40s to nurses in their 20s is currently four-to-one, which means there aren’t enough new nurses to take the places of those who will soon retire. Worse, universities are doing little to attract and retain nurses in their baccalaureate programs, so the pipeline from education to occupation could soon dry up entirely.
However, it is important to note that replacing an older nurse with a younger one is not a final solution. The current nursing population has extensive experience in the field after decades and decades of work in the health care industry, and younger nurses cannot hope to replicate such knowledge and skill without assistance. The limited opportunities to learn nursing in hospitals and facilities hampers the opportunities for equivalent qualities of care in the future.
Demand for Nurses Continues to Increase
Unfortunately, age poses a second obstacle in overcoming the nursing shortage. Over the course of the next 15 years, the remaining baby boomers will enter retirement and advanced age, and as a result, more than 20 percent of the American population will be older than 65. Senior citizens require much more medical attention than the younger populations. About 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and more than two-thirds of Americans on Medicare have multiple chronic health problems that require frequent care. The imminent increased demand on health care services should drive up the demand for nurses, but without an educated group of young nurses at the ready, hospitals could remain perpetually understaffed.
One positive is that new diagnostic techniques and treatment options are helping health care facilities decrease average patient stay, which reduces the strain on RNs. Unfortunately, this means that larger hospitals are generally transforming into giant intensive care facilities, with specialty treatment centers that require workers to have particular experience. An emphasis on more online nursing master’s programs can help already experienced RNs learn the necessary knowledge to reduce the overall strain on the health care system, as well as an increased push to make nursing a more attractive career for high school students nearing graduation.
The Shortage Promises Terrifying Effects
Until the U.S. can entice enough young men and women into the nursing profession to fill the need, healthcare facilities will continue to feel the strain of the nursing shortage. In particular, this means nurses will work longer hours under increasingly stressful conditions, which could drastically reduce the quality of patient care. Doctors have neither the time nor the training to perform the same duties as nurses, meaning as the shortage continues, many health care facilities may stop functioning entirely. Because our aging population needs medical attention like never before, America needs to find a way to attract and train more nurses.