Nursing shortage. Is it a case of crying "wolf?"

How many times have you read about the staggering shortage of nurses? It’s routine to see numbers in the hundreds of thousands tossed around –representing the seemingly insatiable demand for nurses from an aging population. I’ve always been suspicious of these estimates. First, it’s not how the economy works. We’re not really going to have 260,000 unfilled nursing positions in 2025. Either supply will rise, demand will fall or there will be a substitution of other kinds of labor or capital. Second, these numbers often come from interested parties, usually advocates for higher nurse pay and benefits or people who are running nursing schools and would like them to expand.

So I was struck by an article today that mentioned a glut of nurses, even in places like California that mandate minimum nurse staffing ratios. The situation is blamed on the recession, which depresses demand as hospitals and other nurse employers seek to control budgets, and also increases supply as nurses delay retirement, seek more hours, or return to work when a spouse is laid off. I’m sure there’a lot of truth to this, but if there is really such a big shortage it shouldn’t turn into a glut so quickly.

I don’t think employers of nurses are quaking in their boots due to the prospect of a gaping shortage of nurses. Although they might not say so openly (since everyone loves nurses) the forward thinking hospitals are planning for the day when nurses comprise a substantially smaller portion of their costs than they do now. They’ll do it with better decision support systems, workflow tools and robots that will take over many routine and high-skill nursing functions. Hospitals may seem capital intensive now, but I really believe there will be even more substitution of capital for labor in the future.

So if you’re betting on a giant nursing shortage in the year 2025 my guess is you’re going to lose.

January 27, 2012

6 thoughts on “Nursing shortage. Is it a case of crying "wolf?"”

  1. Your post gets my carnival “vote” Dave 🙂 – though I feel you could have added a paragraph about the demand/supply forecast for other clinicians (name your favorite specialist MD category) and won in a landslide….

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