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Study: Size of RN workforce surpasses forecasts

Friday July 18, 2014
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The size of the RN workforce has surpassed forecasts from a decade ago, growing to 2.7 million in 2012 instead of peaking at 2.2 million, according to a study published on HealthAffairs.

Much of the difference is attributed to an increase in the number of new nursing graduates. But the study also suggests the size of the RN workforce is sensitive to changes in retirement age, given the large number of baby-boomer RNs now in the workforce.

The researchers — Peter I. Buerhaus, RN, PhD, FAAN, Valere Potter Professor of Nursing and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies in the Institute for Medicine and Public Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.; David I. Auerbach, MS, PhD, policy researcher at RAND Corporation, based in Santa Monica, Calif.; and Douglas O. Staiger, John French Professor of Economics and chair of the Department of Economics at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. — found that in the period 1969-90, for a given number of RNs working at age 50, 47% were still working at age 62 and 9% were working at age 69. In contrast, in the period 1991-2012 the proportions were 74% at age 62 and 24% at age 69. This trend extended nursing careers by 2.5 years after age 50.

Earlier projections suggested that the number of RNs in the workforce would grow until 2012 and began to taper off as baby-boomer RNs left the workforce. Instead, the nurse workforce grew by 2.9% annually from 2000 to 2012, surpassing its 2.6% annual growth from 1990 to 2000. Assessing current demand for RNs and how this affects previous shortage forecasts is difficult, say the study’s authors. “However, it is certainly possible that demand will grow in the near future because of the coverage expansions resulting from the Affordable Care Act, projected physician shortages, and population growth and aging,” they said. “Should the demand for RNs increase, that could precipitate shortages of such skilled caregivers.”

The growth in the workforce, according to the study, can be attributed to the following:

• The annual output of U.S. nursing education programs doubled over the past decade, increasing from roughly 74,000 in 2002 to 181,000 in 2012.

• Slow economic growth following the recession of 2007-09, which has kept some RNs in the workforce.

• The recession, and its lingering effects, may have temporarily delayed the retirement of older RNs because of income security reasons.

Data on the age and employment of RNs were obtained from the Current Population Survey, the American Community Survey and the Census Bureau.

Read the study: http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2014/07/10/hlthaff.2014.0128


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