How The Aging Population Is Affecting The Nursing Shortage.


By Chris Caulfield RN, NP-C

Baby boomers – the generation born immediately after World War II – have left their mark on the U.S. and will undoubtedly leave their mark on the future of the nursing profession as they enter retirement age. U.S. Census projections indicate that, by 2030, all members of this generation will be 70 or older. As this large segment of the population ages and starts to use more medical care, many predict this will increasingly burden and stress the healthcare industry. Here are a few ways the aging population will impact the nursing profession.

Magnifying the forthcoming nursing shortage

More patients are in need of acute and chronic care management than ever before, and there are fewer experienced nurses to do the job. Due to advances in modern medicine and care management, many of these individuals are expected to be living longer with multiple chronic comorbidities; in the next 10 years, the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries living with three or more chronic conditions will reach 40%. The increased complexity of care associated with chronic care management means that not only will this large population begin requiring more geriatric services, but it will also likely require care for a longer period of time. This will demand an increase in health care providers, which will only further exacerbate the acute and post-acute nursing shortage.

Included in this aging and retiring population are nurses themselves. Research indicates that by 2030, one million nurses will retire. This exodus of skilled nursing professionals due to retirement is projected to occur at precisely the worst time – the nursing shortage will be at its height just as a large population segment will begin requiring care.

To make matters worse, research shows that the nursing workforce is already well below the recommended amount of baccalaureate and doctoral prepared-nurses in the workforce – which indicates that it is highly unlikely these nurses will be able to fill all the shoes of their predecessors.

Generating higher volumes of burnout and turnover rates

As acute and post-acute facilities become inundated with the ailments of an aging population, facilities will struggle to fill shifts with a shrinking workforce. Rather than operate under-staffed and risk being caught out of compliance, facilities will be forced to mandate their internal nurses to work overtime to cover the gaps in their schedule. Unfortunately, this is a temporary fix, not a long-term cure. These internal nurses will inevitably become exhausted and overworked – and that's where burnout sets in and staff turnover accelerates.

In 2019, the World Health Organization finally recognized "burnout" as an official medical diagnosis after decades of debate. Someone with burnout typically experiences feelings of irritability, exhaustion, and a checked-out mentality. Shockingly, one-third of nurses in the U.S. already report experiencing burnout. This does not bode well for the nurse or the patient, as exhaustion and disengagement from their job leads to poor patient experiences and an increase in mistakes.

Further compounding the nursing shortage is an increase in turnover. An RN Network study found that 50% of nurses have considered leaving their profession, citing burnout as a critical reason. Turnover makes it more difficult to safely staff, which places a burden on internal staff and can negatively impact the patient experience. It can also be costly to facilities: between the extra cost of overtime, loss of organizational knowledge, and decreased productivity, studies have estimated that turnover costs facilities anywhere from $22,000 to $64,000, per nurse.

Setting the scene for new ways of nursing to emerge

If nurses are to remain in the profession, and patients are to receive adequate care, facilities need to find new ways to manage their workforce.

One innovative change currently underway is the emergence of the gig economy in the healthcare space. The gig economy – and gig work – fosters the freedom and flexibility for nurses to build their own schedule. Accepting shift opportunities via staffing apps is much like an Uber driver accepting requests from a user looking for a ride. This model allows nurses to build their work schedule around their own personal schedule, not the other way around, and be able to decide for themselves if they want to work overtime or cut back on shifts to take care of their own health.

Artificial intelligence is emerging as a viable tool to help augment the workforce. Some hospitals have already implemented robots that were built to complete nurses' tasks that required precision but did not require the human touch. These tasks have allowed nurses to spend less time dispensing medication, and more time checking in on patient's well-being.

While these technologies are a promising start for the profession, there is much more that can be done to combat the nursing shortage amidst the U.S.'s aging population. Over the next decade, the facilities that embrace workforce flexibility and technology-driven change will put themselves in the best position to overcome these challenges.


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