The nursing shortage: Myth or reality?

News stories abound about the nationwide nursing shortage. In recent weeks, FierceHealthcare reported that New Mexico is desperate for nurses and plans to spend $220,000 on a marketing campaign to recruit nurses from other regions of the country to work in the state.

NBC in Southern California this week bemoaned the fact that a lack of nursing faculty at colleges and universities would bring the nationwide nursing shortage to its worst levels in recent years.

But FierceHealthcare also published reports this week that makes me wonder if the problem really is a lack of nurses and dearth of students interested in pursuing the profession.

First we ran a story that as the job market dries up for hospital nursing positions, more nurses are taking lower-paying jobs in rehabilitation centers, patient homes and outpatient clinics.

And on Thursday the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) released survey results that indicate nearly 60 percent of recent nursing school graduates with bachelor's degrees had job offers at the time of graduation. And by four to six months after they received their diplomas, almost 90 percent of the graduates were working as nurses.

So is the nursing shortage a myth?

Clearly not in New Mexico, where Gov. Susana Martinez wants to streamline the licensing system for nurses who move to New Mexico to allow licensed nurses to cross state lines and practice without additional applications and fees. Yet, New Mexico's troubles also are due to a general lack of healthcare professionals in rural areas.

But the problem isn't a lack of interest in nursing. Consider that California State University, Chico, turned away 86 percent of qualified nursing applicants this year and CSU San Marcos rejected nearly 90 percent.

"Let me put it this way, we have over 1,200 pre-nursing students," Dwight Sweeney, interim chairman of nursing at Cal State San Bernardino told the Long Beach Press Telegram. "I can only take about 108 a year. In the fall, we had over 600 applicants for 44 positions. Realistically, we are turning away people with 3.6 and 3.7 GPAs. And I think that story is playing out on CSU campuses everywhere."

Interestingly, the Press Telegram cited statistics from the AACN that U.S. nursing schools turned away 75,587 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2011. Those figures were missing from the association's latest findings that nurses who graduate with either a bachelor or master's degree are easily finding employment, compared to the national average across all professions.

So let's recap: This week we've learned many students want to pursue nursing degrees and schools are turning them away. And though hospital nursing jobs are no longer as plentiful as they were in the past, positions are available in other healthcare settings, such as rehab centers and outpatient clinics. And if you are a new graduate with an advanced nursing degree, you'll find a job within six months of graduation. That doesn't add up to a nursing shortage.

The real problem, according to nursing school officials, is the shortage of nurses interested in serving as faculty to train the next generation of nurses. The Press Telegram cites additional statistics from the AACN that in October 2012, there were 1,181 faculty vacancies among 662 nursing schools with baccalaureate or graduate programs. That's because clinical work and hospital administrator jobs pay more than what someone can earn as a faculty member.

"The problem is, you have to find someone who's a good clinician, with an educational background, to make it through the tenure process, and you expect them to take less money to do so," Sweeney said.

But there's hope for nursing school officials trying to entice nurses to become members of their faculty.

U.S Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced on Thursday $45.4 million in funding that will address the problem. A large portion of the funds will provide low-interest loans to nurses to train to become faculty and loan cancellation for service as faculty.

And nursing students also will benefit from the funding. HHS will allocate money to provide educational opportunities for nursing students from disadvantaged backgrounds, support advanced nursing education to help registered nurses become nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and other practice nurses, and increase nurse anesthetist traineeships. Sounds like a step in the right direction. - Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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