Rising Rate of Chronic Illness and Fewer Graduates
Highlight Need for Nursing Education


Woman Around Town has written about nursing as a career. In her article below, healthcare writer Sarah Wenger takes a nurse’s perspective on the coming Baby Boom retirement blitz, and outlines what the industry needs to do to prepare. Readers who are interested in learning more about these and related challenges are invited to read more of Sarah’s work at Online Nursing Programs.

Though the U.S. has experienced a nursing shortage for several years, the recent economic crisis has alleviated much of the need: people have been entering the field for the simple reason that there are jobs there. However, as the massive population of Baby Boomers enters retirement, questions remain regarding the ability of the medical community to handle the impending increase in health and nursing care needs. With the oldest baby boomers already entering their mid-60s, these questions will need to be addressed sooner than many realize.

The failing economy has actually been a chief factor in alleviating the nursing shortage, as many students have flocked to nursing programs due to excellent long-term job prospects and the stability the profession offers. However, as the economy recovers, most experts are predicting need to increase substantially, leading to a shortage for the next several years. “When the economy is up, the nursing supply goes down. And when the economy tanks, the supply goes back up,” says Karen Haller, vice president of nursing at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “What we’re seeing right now is an aging workforce. Many nurses in their 50s are going to be retiring soon.” Despite many older workers hanging onto their jobs a few years longer than they had originally predicted, Haller warns of a “silver tsunami of retirements coming.”

Further complicating matters for those in health care are the growing numbers of patients with multiple chronic illnesses, leading to efficiency issues in delivering care. A 2010 report from the Department of Health and Human Services claimed that more than 25 percent of Americans are suffering from two or more chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and high blood pressure, among many others. Chronic illnesses require continuing medical care and limit the ability of individuals to perform activities of daily living, and as people age, their chances of contracting multiple illnesses rise substantially. As Baby Boomers retire, the number of those with multiple chronic conditions is expected to rise from 57 million in 2000 to 81 million by 2020.

Kristen Swanson, dean of the School of Nursing at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asserts that the shortage does not come from low wages, as nurses are already paid a “decent amount,” but that a lack of funding for university nursing programs is to blame. In 2011, UNC reduced its undergraduate program by 25% due to state funding cuts. Swanson suggests that funding more higher education would increase schools’ abilities to properly train a greater numbers of nurses. Many health care workers are also banking on advances in technology to alleviate the strain of the nursing shortage. A 2009 survey found nurses are increasingly relying on mobile applications to aid in patient safety measures and productivity. “Technology makes the processes more efficient,” says Pam Davis, program director for Centennial Medical Center’s bariatric surgery product line, “It makes encounters with patients more effective.”

While increased education and advances in mobile technology may lessen the stresses put on nurses and medical professionals, the rise in nursing care will no doubt soon put a difficult strain on health resources. Hospitals and nursing facilities must work today to maximize their efficiency while still ensuring their nursing staff is not overextended. Health industry professionals, hospital staff as well as Baby Boomers themselves and their families all hold partial responsibility in ensuring patients and their caretakers are prepared for the difficult times that lie ahead.

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