June 5, 2001 (Washington) -- It's a classic supply-and-demand dilemma. As the baby boom generation ages, the nation is facing an unprecedented explosion in its elderly population. This puts a big premium on healthcare professionals such as nurses.
At the same time, however, recent surveys show the number of people graduating from nursing school has dropped by 20% since 1996. Hospitals are already reporting serious shortages of RNs and other crucial health workers.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) announced today that based on a survey of 700 institutions, as many as 168,000 positions are open, including 126,000 RN positions.
This shortage, says AHA President Dick Davidson, is a "flashing yellow light" of trouble. "It's a here-and-now problem" that threatens both the quality of healthcare and access to health services.
Compared to last year, the hospital group reported, institutions are reporting higher emergency room crowding, a reduced number of beds that are staffed, and increased waiting times for surgery.
At the same time, 75% of hospitals are reporting more difficulty in recruiting nurses.
The survey doesn't completely jibe, however, with other recent findings. The Congressional Research Service, for example, reported last month that there is not likely to be an overall national shortage of registered nurses until close to 2010.
Regardless of the speed with which the numbers are decreasing, they seem to be doing so. One reason, Davidson says, is that hospitals are "demanding and stressful places" to work. Indeed, serving as a nurse in a hospital can even be a dangerous occupation.
In April, for example, a patient being admitted to a Florida psychiatric hospital murdered a nurse. According to the American Nurses Association, violence in acute-care settings is one of the factors helping to drive nurses from hospital work.
To compensate, Davidson says, hospitals are trying to make hours more flexible and otherwise sweeten the quality of life for nurses.
That's going to be crucial, says Cindy Price, a spokeswoman for the nurses association. "Working conditions need to be improved in order to attract and retain nurses in acute-care settings," she tells WebMD.
Meanwhile, according to the hospital survey, these institutions are suffering a 21% pharmacist vacancy rate, with double-digit vacancy rates also for radiology technicians and laboratory technicians.
"It's the worst [pharmacist] shortage that I've experienced in my career," Says Joe Gallina, a pharmacist in the Western Maryland Health System in Cumberland.
Hospitals are having a hard time competing for pharmacists with Target, Wal-Mart, and others in the private sector that can offer higher salaries, says Davidson.
Congressional hearings this year have examined the shortage of nurses, and more hearings are planned on the scarcity of health workers, but solutions may be expensive and long in coming.
The hospital group today proposed legislative steps that would require tens of billions of dollars. Most of that money would come from adjusting Medicare reimbursement rules relating to wages for hospital employees.
Hospitals and nurses are also pushing for the creation of a federal fund to provide nurse scholarships, loan repayment programs, and other initiatives for education, recruitment, and training of nurses.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has proposed shifting money from existing training grants for physicians to initiatives to address the nursing shortage.
But University of Pennsylvania researcher Sean Clarke, RN, tells WebMD, "These things are only small pieces of the pie. Nursing is an occupation for which you can't train people quickly, and that doesn't seem to resonate with people making career choices now."