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The Shape of Nursing to Come: Looking at the Impending Shortage

Date published: February 9, 2021

In September of 2020, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) released its Nursing Shortage fact sheet, and it paints a dire outlook for the healthcare field. The fact sheet pulls from numerous sources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Journal of Medical Quality, and the Health Resources and Services Administration. As stated in the publication, AACN compiles the fact sheet "to keep stakeholders abreast of the issues." The AACN "is leveraging its resources to shape legislation, identify strategies, and form collaborations to address the shortage."

The main statistic is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that each year through 2029, that there will be 175,900 nursing jobs that will need to be filled. This number is reached by factoring in nurses leaving the workforce, either through retirement or other reasons. That means between now and 2029, the country will need to fill 1.4 million nursing positions.

AACN looked at the impact a nursing shortage will have in hospitals. Numerous studies show the extremely damaging effect nursing shortages have on patient and staff health. Overall, higher patient-to-nurse ratios increases the chances of readmission, infections, and mortality rates. The higher the patient-to-nurse ratio, the higher the nurse burnout, which directly affects patients and compromises nurses' well-being. In a survey of nurses, the majority reported that nurse burnout leads to increased stress and is a major cause of nurses leaving the profession.

Also, studies found that increasing the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the unit results in fewer patient deaths and reduced failure-to-rescue rates. From the fact sheet, the conclusion can quickly be drawn that increasing the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses should be the foundation of tackling the nursing shortage.

AACN looks at contributing factors that impact the nursing shortage. The first, most glaring, is that the average age for an RN is 50 years old, which means there could be a massive wave of retirements over the next 15 years. But the other major factor that will contribute to the shortage is the lack of nursing students. The AACN did report that in 2019, there was a 5.1% enrollment increase in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs. They go on to say that "the increase is not sufficient to meet the projected demand for nursing services."

On a positive note, this statistic may be out-of-date. With the unprecedented healthcare crisis, 2020 saw a trend dubbed the "Fauci Effect." Nurse.org talked with its namesake and reported on the phenomenon. Dr. Anthony Fauci cites nurses' incredible work on the frontlines as the real inspiration for increasing interest in the nursing field. The article states that many colleges across the country saw increases in applications to their nursing programs, with UC Davis School of Medicine seeing a 38% increase in overall medical school applications since the pandemic.

And while this news is uplifting, if we turn back to the AACN fact sheet, the lack of interest in nursing programs isn't the main challenge with turning applicants into graduates; it's the lack of resources. The fact sheet states, "U.S. nursing schools turned away 80,407 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2019 due to the insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and clinical preceptors, as well as budget constraints."

As noted by Dr. M. Bridget Nettleton, former dean at SUNY Empire State College, “nursing programs, in particular pre-licensure programs, have to address all of the factors noted above such as lack of qualified faculty, competition for clinical placements for direct care experiences and significant lack of the needed resources including technologies that could help ease some of these demands. Education, practice and industry need to work collaboratively now more than ever if these challenges are to be overcome.”

The fact sheet paints a clear picture. There will be a worsening nursing shortage if the country cannot increase the number of qualified nursing graduates. There really is no other way around the issue.

Davin Workforce Solutions CEO and Owner, David Theobald, MS, RN, CSP, closely follows the trends in the healthcare market. “While there are many uncertainties in the world, especially in healthcare, one thing is for sure. There is a nationwide call to action to engage, educate, and build more clinical capacity to strengthen the diversity and vast numbers of nurses and allied healthcare professionals within all modalities and specialties. We should all rise to that call.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be widespread and unpredictable, many organizations like ours are rising to the occasion to find innovative and compassionate healthcare workforce and technology solutions that help ease the current and impending shortages.


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