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Older Nurses Ease Crunch - For Now

Hospitals hired 100,000 new nurses last year, the vast majority over age 50 or foreign-born — easing but not ending a severe, nationwide nursing shortage, a new analysis found.

The surge of older nurses is welcome but only temporarily helpful, because they'll retire at the same time hospitals need even more nurses to keep up with the aging population, said study co-author Peter Buerhaus, associate dean of Vanderbilt University's nursing school.

The number of foreign-born nurses is sure to continue growing, a trend that hospitals and policy makers must plan for so that decisions on how to incorporate and train these workers can be made, said the report, published in the journal Health Affairs.

The current nursing shortage began in 1998, fueled by, among other things, longer hours and increasingly demanding working conditions that caused experienced nurses to leave the field.

The government has projected that the nation could face a shortfall of half a million nurses by 2015.

Buerhaus used a Census Bureau employment survey to analyze trends in nursing employment, and found that hospitals hired 100,000 new nurses last year, a 9 percent increase from 2001. (Nursing employment in non-hospital settings, such as nursing homes and doctors' offices, dropped almost 1 percent.)

Almost all the new hires were over 50 or foreign-born.

There are several possible reasons for the sudden jump. Wages for hospital nurses grew by nearly 5 percent last year, providing an incentive for some nurses to re-enter the field. A poor economy may have led some nurses back to work if their spouses had job trouble, Buerhaus added, noting that married nurses accounted for almost all of the increase.

Also, hospitals also may have felt pressure to hire more staff because of media reports that the nursing shortage was harming patient care, he wrote.

At the same time, employment of nurses younger than 35 dropped by 8 percent last year, and the number of nurses age 35 to 49 — long the bulk of the work force — grew by just 4.5 percent.

Recent efforts to get younger people more interested in nursing are running into budget snags, Buerhaus noted. Nursing schools turned away more than 5,000 qualified applicants in the past year because of shortages of faculty and classroom space.

The American Nursing Association agreed that the hiring upswing doesn't mark an end to the shortage.

"What will be important is to see if hospitals are able to retain nurses over the long term," said ANA spokeswoman Cindy Price. "You need to change the working conditions of nurses in order to tackle the larger problem."

By Lauran Neergaard

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