The Nursing Shortage: Today and Tomorrow – Why We Have a Problem and How We Might Solve It

October 17, 2002

Yet another nursing shortage is upon us but this time it’s projected to be here for decades. Almost as many people are leaving the nursing profession as are entering it. Many nurses are nearing retirement; only 12 percent of registered nurses are under age 30. At the same time, the aging baby boomer population is creating a growing need for nursing care.

According to the federal Bureau of Health Professions, there was a national shortfall of 110,000 nurses in 2000, about six percent of the current nursing workforce of 1.9 million. By 2020, the number of nurses is expected to rise to only 2 million but 2.8 million will be needed, resulting in a shortfall of nearly 30 percent. The shortage is having serious consequences. A study by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations found that low nurse staffing levels were a contributing factor in nearly a quarter of “unanticipated problems” resulting in injury or death to hospital patients

How acute is the nursing shortage now, and how bad will it be in the coming years? What can we learn from past nursing shortages? What concrete solutions do employers, the nursing profession and the government have? How can we make nursing more attractive to minorities, an increasing portion of the population? How much will the Nurse Reinvestment Act, enacted in 2002, help solve the problem?

To address these and related questions, the Alliance for Health Reform sponsored an October 17, 2002 briefing. Panelists included: Edward O’Neil, director of the Center for the Health Professions at University of California, San Francisco; Kerry P. Nesseler, associate administrator of the Bureau of Health Professions at HHS; Barbara Blakeney, president, American Nurses Association; Maureen White, chief nurse executive, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Alliance, moderated the discussion.