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That Nursing Shortage? It's On The Mend, Thanks Very Much


Aging boomers, worried that hospitals and care centers might be short-staffed due to the recent nursing shortage, got some good news this week: There's been a surge in the number of young people choosing to become nurses.

Up to now, the news for the nursing profession has been grim. The number of 23- to 26-year-old nurses dropped by nearly half in the 80s and 90s, causing analysts to worry that as older nurses retired, there wouldn't be anyone to take their place just as the demand for health care from older baby boomers peaked.

However, aggressive efforts to attract more young people to the career field seem to have paid off. An analysis published this week in the policy journal Health Affairs, finds that the number of young nurses has jumped 62 percent between 2002 and 2009, from a low of 102,000 to 165,000.

"This is a very welcome and surprising development," study co-author David Auerbach, a health economist at RAND Health, said in a statement. "Instead of worrying about a decline, we are now growing the supply of nurses."

Auerbach and his colleagues, who studied new Census data for their report, say the number of young registered nurses has grown at a rate not seen since the 1970s. If these RNs stay in the profession, they write, nurses born in the 1980s could make up the largest group of registered nurses ever -- surpassing even those born in the 1950s.

The researchers  estimate that the nursing workforce should grow at roughly the same rate as the population through 2030.

How was the shortage slowed? Accelerated degree programs to attract people who already have degrees in other fields; a major recruitment campaign by health giant Johnson & Johnson; and a boost in federal funding for nurse training programs.

However, there are still potential problems. A second survey in Health Affairs finds that more than half of new nurses are unlikely to relocate to seek jobs after receiving their training. That means some areas of the country will continue to have nursing shortages without added incentives, such as financial aid.

Plus, there's not enough people to train all those who want to become nurses. According to Auerbach and his colleagues, 55,000 qualified applicants were turned away  from nursing schools in 2010, up from 16,000 in 2003.

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