Shrinking nursing work force expected

The Associated Press
Wednesday February 14, 2001

WASHINGTON — The most vulnerable patients in the nation’s operating rooms, intensive care units and newborn wards won’t have enough able caregivers in 20 years because of a shrinking pool of registered nurses, health experts warned Congress on Tuesday. 

“When you visit your father after a coronary bypass or your mother in an Alzheimer’s unit, you expect a competent nurse to be there,” Linda Hodges, a nursing college dean from Arkansas, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions subcommittee on aging issues. 

“The current nursing and nurse educator shortages pose a major threat to ... society’s most vulnerable populations,” she said 

The hearing on how much the federal government should pay for recruiting or keeping nurses came as the Health and Human Services Department prepared to release new figures Wednesday on the nursing work force. 

Preliminary data provided by the Senate on Tuesday shows out of 2.7 million licensed registered nurses, 2.2 million were employed as nurses in 2000. That is compared with the 2.5 million licensed to practice, and 2.1 million employed in the 1996 government survey, conducted by the department’s Bureau of Health Professions. 

From 1996 to 2000, the average age of registered nurses has risen from 44.3 to 45.2, the Health Department figures show. 

Federal officials and nursing groups agree the nation will experience an acute shortage of registered nurses starting in 2010, when today’s nurses start to retire. 

But age isn’t the only factor. Experts said at the Senate hearing: Mid-career departures are cutting into the talent pool. Fewer young people are taking up the profession. And the 94 percent of women in nursing are increasingly finding doors opening in business, law and other male-dominated careers. 

“Nurses tell me they feel undervalued, overworked, and underpaid,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate panel. 

Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., who chairs the subcommittee, said senators would introduce a plan in the next few weeks that would include grants for nursing scholarships and training programs. 

In the meantime, witnesses said, the need for specialized care is already eating into local and state budgets. For example: 

— Last November, nursing shortages forced Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to leave 10 percent of its surgical beds unfilled, delaying or canceling some surgeries. 

— In Arkansas 53 hospitals, most of them rural, reported 750 openings for registered nurses. 

— Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa, more than doubled salaries to attract nurses to the weekend shifts. 

Health care needs are too unpredictable for hospitals not to be prepared with enough staff, said Brandon Melton, who oversees hiring for the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives system of 120 not-for-profit health centers. 

“We have no control over flu outbreaks, highway accidents, or the scores of other emergencies that erupt on a daily basis,” he said. 

Witnesses called for an increased federal role. 

“Just as the nation has made finding, training and retaining police officers and teachers a national priority, we strongly urge President Bush and Congress to elevate nursing staff to a similar status,” said Dr. Charles H. Roadman, president of the American Health Care Association. 

The nonprofit network of 12,000 nursing care centers released its own study saying nursing homes would need to spend as much as $15 billion next year to fill their shortages. 


On the Net: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee: http://www.senate.gov/ 7/8labor/107Hearings/107hearings.htm