A surge in young nurses may ease forecasts of coming shortages as their baby-boomer coworkers retire.
The past decade brought a 62 percent increase in the number of younger registered nurses entering the workforce, researchers reported Monday in the journal Health Affairs.
A young influx is noteworthy because at least 900,000 of the nation's roughly 3 million nurses are older than 50, meaning they're nearing retirement. At the same time, the population is aging and getting more chronic diseases, bringing an increased demand for care even before the new health care law that promises to help 32 million more Americans gain insurance within a few years.
The numbers of 20-something nurses had dropped steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, hitting a low in 2002. But by 2009, there were 165,000 full-time equivalent nurses ages 23 to 26, reported lead researcher David Auerbach, a health economist at RAND Health.
There's been a national push for more nurses in recent years, with accelerated degrees and other programs aimed to attract both young nurses and second-career ones in their 30s, said study coauthor Peter Buerhaus, a nursing professor at Vanderbilt University. The latter group is on the rise, too, not unexpected in tough economic times.
But it's not clear if the growth in new nurses will continue enough to meet the coming demand.
"Keep it up and maybe we'll get out of the woods," Buerhaus said.
Another issue is whether there are enough nurses trained in geriatric care, especially for outpatients, areas that a recent Institute of Medicine report deemed key.
Adding to the shortage question is how to assure nurses are distributed adequately around the country. New York University nursing professor Christine Kovner led a survey of newly licensed RNs in 15 states, and found just over half work within 40 miles of where they attended high school.
Census data shows it's one of the least mobile professions, Kovner wrote in Health Affairs. It's not clear why, but one reason is an increase in second-career nurses who already have family obligations by the time they switch jobs, she said. To compensate, policy makers should expand nurse-training programs in rural and other underserved areas, she concluded.