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We take a look at the numbers and tell you where they add up and, even more importantly, where they don’t.

African American male nurse giving a shot to little girl
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Nursing Shortage

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need nurses — stat!

It’s National Nurses Week ... but Where Are All the Nurses

Why you should care

Because it’s National Nurses Week — and amid all the talk of a changing health care system, here’s one crucial part of the conversation that’s missing: a longtime call for more nurses.

On one hand, things are looking pretty dandy for nursing in the United States: the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected

19 percent growth

in employment for registered nurses from 2012–2022. (Compare that to an 11 percent average growth rate for all occupations.)

But here’s the twist: The recent recession made it more difficult for entry-level nurses to find work, as more experienced nurses put off retirement and stayed in the job force.

Yet here’s the trouble: There’s a nurse shortage – and it’s happening all over the world.

In 2010, a World Health Organization report revealed that India needed 2.4 million more nurses. In sub-Saharan Africa, shortages are having profound effects on health care. In Canada, a nursing shortage lingers on, with an expected 60,000 additional registered nurses needed by 2022.

And as for the U.S.? The demand for health care is only expected to increase here. With baby boomers aging, 2–3 million additional patients will enter into Medicare each year, says Peter McMenamin, senior policy fellow and health economist at the American Nurses Association.

Between now and 2022, there will be an expected half-million nursing jobs from growing demand — plus another half-million nurses will retire and need to be replaced.

And what about the more than 8 million people who have already signed up for health care via the Affordable Care Act? The new demands from patients getting insurance through Obamacare are still too early to tell, but more people will likely put pressures on demand.

With a shortage expected also among primary care physicians, some assert that nurses can help fill the gaps.

But here we see the crux of a basic supply-and-demand problem: We need ’em, but we don’t got ’em.

A cohort of nurses entered the profession in the 1970s have aged into their 60s and are getting ready to retire, McMenamin says. So between now and 2022, not only will there be an expected half-million nursing jobs from growing demand — but also another half-million nurses will retire and need to be replaced.

The pipeline itself is in danger, and has been for some time, McMenamin adds: Title VIII funding for nursing education has been eaten away by inflation over the years. Plus, it’s tough to replace aging faculty at nursing schools with well-paid nurse practitioners and midwives. Taking teaching jobs over well-paying gigs at hospitals is a tough sell — the pay loss for many faculty would be as much as $20,000–$30,000 a year.

In fact, Robert Rosseter, a spokesperson for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, said that almost 79,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing programs last year because of faculty shortages.

It might be time to address current and projected nursing shortages before we’re all sick and the nurses are all exhausted.

But maybe there’s some good news: More and more men have been entering nursing in the last few decades, in a field that has been stereotypically female-dominated. For that, we say: kudos, Greg Focker, kudos.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a tech buff and journalist living in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @VigneshR.

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