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Did you read it? — “Why is the U.S. perpetually short of nurses?”

Shutterstock | Jirat Sarmkasat
Shutterstock | Jirat Sarmkasat

If you’re growing weary of all the chatter about the current and future nurse shortage, especially when so little is being done to trigger change, it’s probably because this issue has been around for a long…long…long time.

Below, in a recent article published by The New Yorker, one author explores the curious staying power of the nation’s nurse deficit. The article begins by comparing two earlier editorial pieces, both of which address the shortage.

“The nationwide shortage of nurses is likely to reach crisis proportions… There is not much chance for permanent relief until the nursing profession is made more attractive to young people through better salaries, working conditions and public recognition.”


In another, titled “We Need More Nurses,” Alexandra Robbins warns of dire consequences in the absence of a larger nursing workforce: “The more patients assigned to a nurse, the higher the patients’ risk of death, infections, complications, falls, failure-to-rescue rates and readmission to the hospital—and the longer their hospital stay.”

“We Need More Nurses” was written in May 2015. The first article was written in 1965.

Different times, same issue.

And it’s not as though the trend has gone unnoticed. Countless studies have been conducted to illustrate, track and forecast the severity of the nurse deficit. Some studies have been geared toward quantitative data; others with a focus on at-risk regions. There are even those highlighting sporadic booms, such as the rise of nurse employment in 2007.

The overall conclusion, however, is that shortages are likely to continue or recur. All of which points to somewhat of an economic anomaly:

In a relatively free society and economy, the tendency with any labor-supply shortage, in the face of steady or increasing demand, is that higher wages and other benefits will attract people to the profession, and the problem will largely resolve itself over time. Why has this not been the case with nursing?

The author goes on to describe the nursing profession as “volatile,” a characteristic that makes measuring balance, as a whole, a difficult task. What’s clear, however, is that the numbers simply aren’t adding up.

According to the article, there are 2.7 million registered nurses employed in the United States. A 2010 government survey revealed that nearly half of all registered nurses were not actively working in the field.

So—what gives? Well, to start, there’s the training.

As both Times editorials suggest, nursing is very demanding, and the education required is rigorous, in terms of both its duration and the level of specialized knowledge required. For those who are prepared to commit, there is a shortage of clinical-training slots, and of teachers.

As it turns out, nurses are who are qualified to teach can pad their pockets more by actually working in the field. Just last year, 78,000 students felt the sting of the scarcity when they were denied admission to nursing school.

Then, of course (as you know), there’s the work itself.

For those in the field, the work is difficult enough that a large percentage of nurses leave the profession at some point in their careers.

While nurses tend to be satisfied with their career choice, fully half of them worry that the job has harmed their health. Some surveys of nurses have also found dissatisfaction with wages, hours, technological complexity, and administrative burdens.

Some regions, such as the West, are taking a harder hit than others. Though, as the article points out, it’s hard to determine a universally adequate nurse-to-patient ratio.

Of course, with ratio being an offshoot of a greater whole, the overarching uncertainty remains.

The perpetual nature of the crisis, and the projections moving forward, naturally lead to the question of whether, given our evolving awareness of the underlying complexities, different policies can hope to create more nurses.

Some medical professionals suggest that the health-care system has reduced its need for nurses by assigning some tasks to other types of workers, such as nursing assistants, technicians, and orderlies.

Such shifts, however, are not necessarily advantageous, leaving just one other option:

A better alternative, however, would be to improve the ways we attract and train nurses.

Nurses, want a full read? Check out the article in its entirety here, then tell us how you think the shortage should be addressed in the comments section below.


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One Response to Did you read it? — “Why is the U.S. perpetually short of nurses?”

  1. nan RN

    I understand nursing wanting to appear more educated, and offering not only BSN degrees, but also MSN and PhDs.
    I would like to see a resurgence of the “nursing school” education, like I had. I got hired by the hospital I trained at, so I already knew policies and procedures, and how the hospital worked. Granted, I never climbed the clinical ladder outside of top staff nurse, but that was ok, as patient care was what I wanted to do.

    I ended up having to leave the bedside after 21 years, but went to one of the very first telephonic nursing companies, became a preceptor, and traveled both nationally and internationally. I ended up working for 34 years as a diploma RN, until a bad back necessitated my having to leave the workforce.

    I was able to work in fascinating specialities, worked with many wonderful people, and miss working every day…..

    I would like to hear that there are no waiting lists to get into a nursing program. Sorry if I sound idealistic or out of touch. I loved my nursing program, and was PROUD to be a diploma grad.