As we conclude a month of celebrations for America’s nurses, it’s time to focus on what lies ahead. The reality is daunting. The country faces a worsening nursing shortage, with a predicted deficit of 800,000 Registered Nurses (RN) by 2020, just two short years away. An aging population, higher patient acuity, more baby boomer nurses retiring, and a rising demand for care in the wake of national health care reform are all contributing factors.
At the same time, nursing is the fastest-growing occupation in the country, with more than 3.2 million RNs. Hospitals and clinics are eager to hire more nurses. Students are clamoring to enter nursing programs. So why aren’t there enough new graduate nurses to shore up the workforce?
One major reason, often overlooked, is a bottleneck in the nursing education pipeline. Nursing school enrollment is not growing fast enough to meet projected demand.
CNN recently reported that, in 2017, nursing schools turned away more than 56,000 qualified applicants from undergraduate nursing programs. The report goes on to cite statistics from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN): in the last decade, nursing schools have rejected about 30,000 applicants annually, all of whom met admission requirements.
Nursing schools face two major challenges: limited faculty and limited resources. As the average of faculty members continues to climb and more educators retire, schools are struggling to retain staff. In addition, higher compensation in clinical and private-sector settings is luring educators away. To make matters worse, MSN and DNP programs do not produce a large enough pool of qualified professors to fill the void.
Likewise, nursing schools are struggling to expand capacity. They do not have the space, facilities, equipment or funding to meet the enormous demand for nurses and the large number of applicants to their programs.
What can be done? States are stepping up with initiatives to address both the nursing shortage and the shortage of nurse educators. And nursing schools are partnering with hospitals and other providers to utilize nursing staff as educators.
The University of Wisconsin recently announced a $3.2 million grant to provide fellowships and loan forgiveness for future nurse faculty who agree to teach in the state after graduation. The Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence expanded its scholars program nationally and now supports nearly 200 doctoral nursing students in 87 nursing schools across the country. To increase the number of doctorate-prepared nursing faculty, AACN expanded NursingCAS, a centralized application service for RNs, to include graduate nursing programs and help ensure all vacant seats in schools of nursing are filled.
Our nation’s health care system depends on innovations like these to ensure we continue to have a robust supply of well-trained and well-educated nurses. But the challenges are great. In a country with a volatile political climate and lack of a basic health policy, nothing less than the future of high-quality, safe patient care is at stake.