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Health Care Workforce: Nurse And Physician Shortages



June 14th, 2010

In today’s Washington Post, Darryl Fears writes about looming shortages of physicians and nurses. One of the primary sources quoted in the article is Peter Buerhaus of Vanderbilt, who says the nation is looking at a future shortage of about 300,000 nurses.

Readers interested in more detail on Buerhaus’s nursing workforce projections can consult his Health Affairs article from June of last year, cowritten with David Auerbach of the Congressional Budget Office and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth College.. The authors said the economic recession would contribute to easing or even ending the registered nurse shortage in many areas of the country, as older nurses delayed retirement or returned to the workforce and part-time nurses became full time in response to the employment insecurity of their spouses. However, the relief would be temporary: A new RN shortage awaits in the next decade as baby boomers retire from the nursing workforce.

The three researchers projected a shortfall of RNs developing around 2018 and growing to about 260,000 by 2025. Although these projections represent a smaller shortfall than earlier estimates, the magnitude of the 2025 deficit would still be more than twice as large as any nurse shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s. Avoiding this shortfall would require expanding the capacity of nursing education programs, which since 2002 have turned away 30,000 or more qualified applicants annually, Buerhaus and his colleagues said.

Physician Shortage. Health Affairs has also published a number of articles dealing with physician workforce issues. For example, in 2008 the journal published a study warning of an impending shortage of generalist physicians to provide primary care for adults. By 2025, the nation will be short 35,000 to 44,000 adult-care generalists practicing family medicine and general internal medicine, wrote Jack Colwill, a professor emeritus of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and coauthors James Cultice, an operations research analyst at the Health Resources and Services Administration (part of HHS), and Robin Kruse, a research assistant professor of family and community medicine at UMC.

Of course, neither the Buerhaus nor the Colwill projections take into account increased demand for care from the recently passed health reform legislation. Said Buerhaus in the Post article: “That’s a knockout number. It knocks the system down. It stops it.”

An additional piece of the picture: The contributions of providers such as physician assistants and pharmacists figure to be even more important in the years to come.

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