Supply of Nurses in the Workforce Expected to Vary by Region

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

February 22, 2013 - A new study published in the journal Nursing Economic$ took a look at the projected supply of registered nurses and found that it varies significantly by region.

According to “Projections of the Long-Term Growth of the Registered Nurse Workforce: A Regional Analysis,” the South and Midwest regions have a greater supply of younger nurses who will be available to replace nurses who retire or leave the workforce in the near future than the Northeast and West regions have.

Early ACO Adopters
Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, said that nurses, employers and workforce planners should pay attention to regional differences in RN supply.

Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, David Auerbach, PhD, MS, Douglas Staiger, PhD, and Ulrike Muench, PhD, RN, analyzed national long-term projections for the RN workforce and broke them down into regional-level projections to determine any underlying differences.

“This information can help guide national and state health workforce planners, employers, educators and others in developing policies and initiatives that may impact nursing supply in their states,” they wrote.

States that are in slow-growth regions may want to examine the reasons for their slow growth and then devise possible solutions for their particular circumstances. That may include creating ways to boost their supply of educational programs and spaces in those programs, for example.

“You may not have to increase the capacity of the programs,” said Buerhaus, a noted expert on nursing workforce issues and the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “You may just have to get interest [in nursing] up.”

But that doesn’t mean that states in fast-growth regions should be complacent about their current position.  The report noted that “health workforce planners in higher RN growth regions of the country can anticipate efforts to recruit RNs they are producing by states in the lower-growth regions.”

“You’ve got to pay attention,” said Buerhaus, adding that the demand could be greater in those regions, so they would have to closely monitor whether their supply and demand actually match up appropriately.

“Those states would need to be doing some really good analysis about the expected future demand for nurses, given these pressures, population growth, the aging of the population, the health reform implementation,” he said.

Still needed: young people interested in nursing

The expansion of the size of the future nursing workforce depends on a continual flow of young people into the workforce to replace those who leave; the workforce models all take that projected flow into account.  The recent growth in the workforce, in fact, is attributable to “younger-aged people becoming RNs,” the report noted.

Anything that alters the flow into that pipeline could have a substantial impact on the supply of nurses.

For example, some recent nursing graduates have found it harder to land jobs in certain pockets of the country in recent years, as the economy struggled and many older nurses remained in the workforce.  But the experts don’t want young people to get discouraged and decide to rule out a future career in nursing.

Early ACO Adopters
David Auerbach, PhD, MS, said that a continual flow of new nurses is needed for the future workforce.

“This is probably a temporary phenomenon,” said Auerbach, a researcher with the RAND Corporation, but added that how potential nurses see the current situation could affect future supply. “People could get discouraged from becoming an RN. That could change, so we’re monitoring that.”

This particular study only looked at supply, noted Buerhaus. However, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is expected to release data on projected demand later this year.

“We’re going to be anxious to see how they’re modeling demand,” Buerhaus said.

That could also help states plan for the future so they can determine if their supply and demand are likely to match up.

Mary Rita Hurley, RN, executive director of the Oregon Center for Nursing and board president of the Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, praised the report for highlighting important issues about the supply and projected supply of registered nurses.

“Dr. Buerhaus is right on target,” she said.

The Forum has established national nursing workforce minimum datasets in the areas of nursing supply, nursing demand, and nursing education programs to help quantify the nursing workforce situation in an attempt to get all states to collect the same data. But not every state currently has a nursing workforce center to collect and analyze such data, Hurley said, noting that about 15 states do not.

So the data in the Nursing Economic$ report can be helpful in the ongoing efforts to educate the public and private sector about the nursing workforce, Hurley said, and extremely useful for workforce centers and others to use for planning. 

Hurley, like many who closely monitor nursing workforce issues, believes the current workforce situation is sort of a “false lull,” and that there is there is still a lot of work to do, convincing lawmakers and decision-makers to remember the importance of investing in and supporting a flourishing nurse workforce for the future.

“That’s why I keep talking. I hope people are listening,” she said.

Related industry research:
AMN’s 2012 Survey of Registered Nurses: Job Satisfaction, Career Patterns and Trajectories


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