The country's seemingly chronic shortage of registered nurses is predicted to be far less serious down the road than previously forecast, according to new research.
What was expected to be a major problem for health care leaders will need less attention, at least for now.
The research, published in the American Public Health Association journal Medical Care, forecasts a nurse shortage of about 130,000 nurses in 2025. That contrasts sharply with estimates from more than a decade ago that the shortage would hit 500,000 to 800,000 nurses, says one of the study's co-authors, Peter Buerhaus, nursing economist and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at the Montana State University.
The previous estimates, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000, spurred changes in health care that, combined with delayed RN retirements for economic reasons, have somewhat eased worries about the supply of nurses in the workforce. A number of foundations, corporations and other stakeholders stepped in with concentrated efforts to encourage enrollment in nursing programs, he says. "The study kind of woke everybody up, who said 'if we don't do something, we're going to be in big, big trouble,' " Buerhaus says.
Those efforts worked, while at the same time recessions in both the early and late 2000s led to slower retirement rates by older RNs in the workforce.
The Medical Care study projects the total full-time equivalent RN workforce to reach 3.3 million in 2030 from the estimated 2.7 million as of 2013.
The study is based on the researchers' estimates of supply and the federal government's estimates for demand. The Health Resources and Services Administration forecasts by the federal government will be subject to potentially volatile forces, including the effects of the effort to transform how health care is provided. "Anyone who is trying to figure out demand [for nurses], good luck to them," Buerhaus says.
He also warns that even the more recent lower estimate of a 130,000 shortage of nurses is still high enough to merit attention. "That would be a serious shortage that would damage hospitals' ability to have units open," he says.
"It's much better than what we projected in the past, but we're still not quite out of the woods," Buerhaus says.