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Retirement Surge Could Drain Nursing ‘Wisdom’

For years, healthcare experts have been talking about a pending wave of retirements of baby boomer nurses. When the recession hit, it appeared that many older nurses decided to delay retirement due to economic uncertainty.

But now, the recession is over. And the wave of baby boomer nurse retirements is fast approaching, according to the 2015 Survey of Registered Nurses, just release by AMN Healthcare’s Center for the Advancement of Healthcare Professionals, which gathered responses from nearly 9,000 RNs.

The retirement wave could have dramatic, unforeseen effects on the healthcare industry.

The AMN survey contains some startling facts:

  • 62% of nurses older than age 54 answered “yes” or “maybe” when asked if they were thinking more about retirement now that the economy has improved
  • 62% of nurses over age 54 who are considering retirement said they plan to retire in the next three years
  • In addition, 21% of nurses older than age 54 said they plan to move to part-time work

Why Experienced Nurses are Important

The large-scale loss of older nurses could be a serious challenge. To begin, more than half of working nurses are over age 50, according to a 2013 study by the National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers. So, older, more experienced nurses comprise a disproportionately large cohort in the nursing workforce. A wave of retirements among them could mean a large loss in numbers.

Another factor that may be even more detrimental: The loss of nursing experience and wisdom. An institution’s procedures, safety, and effectiveness could be compromised from the loss of the experienced nurses’ interpersonal skills, institutional knowledge, and ability to perform well under stressful situations. Overall organization performance could be challenged.

The magnitude of this impact may be unpredictable. A report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the importance of older nurses concluded that “most organizations do not know where they are vulnerable in terms of the loss of knowledge.”

Turnover costs alone are significant; replacement costs are equal to or greater than two times a regular nurse’s salary -- and even more for a specialty nurse, the study showed. But the loss of knowledge from experienced nurses is hard to quantify. As expert nurses retire, patient care will increasingly be covered by less experienced nurses and novice nurses. “…Organizational procedures, hospital safety, and effectiveness could be severely compromised,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study concluded.

Healthcare Industry Needs to Prepare

Preparing for the nursing retirement surge includes efforts aimed at retention, recruitment, training, and, above all, workforce planning.

Retention efforts focused on older nurses can be multifaceted, including the utilization of flexible benefits and hours, phased retirement, talent management for the right demographic mix, and supportive workplace environments. Recruitment can be targeted to the hiring of older nurses, using options that find favor with them. Education and training can include enrichment opportunities for older nurses and preparation of novice nurses for more complex roles.

Strategic workforce planning can now utilize technology to accurately forecast future workforce needs and changes and then to fill staffing needs.

Marcia Faller Retirement Surge

Of course, most healthcare systems may not have the resources, time, or capacity to undertake the efforts that will be needed to cope with the coming retirement surge among older nurses. Fortunately, expertise in solving healthcare workforce challenges has developed outside of patient-care providers, which are overburdened these days with patient care responsibilities. Healthcare staffing and workforce solutions experts can partner with healthcare providers to proactively solve the quickly approaching challenges that will develop with the nursing retirement surge.