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U.S. Faces Critical Shortage of Nurses

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You've probably heard about the nation's shortage of nurses. It's not necessarily because not enough Americans want to go into the profession. In fact, applications to nursing schools are on the rise, but the country's colleges and universities are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Rachel Gotbaum reports.

RACHEL GOTBAUM: Over the next decade, 80 million baby boomers will be reaching retirement. They will all need a lot more medical care. Mary Jane Williams is a nursing professor at the University of Hartford.

Professor MARY JANE WILLIAMS (Nursing, University of Hartford): Once you reach 65, you have seven times the number of diagnoses that you had under 65. Everybody will tell you it's not the golden years.

GOTBAUM: The majority of nurses will be retiring along with their baby-boomer colleagues. And there's no shortage of people who want to replace them. Applications to nursing schools are up 40 percent from a decade ago. But there's a problem, not enough educators to train these future nurses.

Ms. JEAN CABRAL (Teaches Nursing at Brigham and Women's Hospital): And this is one and what else happens to people when they're on prolonged bed rest?

GOTBAUM: At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Jean Cabral is going over patient reports with her third-year nursing students from the University of Massachusetts.

Ms. CABRAL: Okay, what if look in chart (Unintelligible)?

Unidentified Woman #1: Pneumonia.

Unidentified Group: Pneumonia.

Ms. CABRAL: Pneumonia, right.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh that's right, that's right.

GOTBAUM: Cabral is 58. She's been an intensive care nurse for more than 30 years. But last year, she injured her shoulder while trying to lift one of her patients.

Ms. CABRAL: We are doing more for these patients than we ever did before and yet there's only so much that a human body can do in an eight- or 12-hour shift. This accident has given me an alarm bell; I'm not sure how much longer my body is going to last working in this tough environment.

GOTBAUM: Cabral has decided to try teaching. But she's not sure she's going to continue doing it because she had to take a 25 percent cut in pay.

Nurses who get a master's degree or even a Ph.D. can make a lot more money nursing than they can teaching. They are also choosing other higher paying jobs in biotech, insurance and the pharmaceutical industry.

Mary Jane Williams teaches nursing at the University of Hartford.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Why would I want to be an educator when my salary is 50 percent of my colleague who is the vice president of nursing in the local hospital.

GOTBAUM: There is now a lack of nurse educators in both the classroom and on the hospital floor. This has caused a bottleneck, and most nursing programs have long waiting lists. In 2005, 147,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools in this country.

Professor JUDY SHINDUL ROTHSCHILD (Nursing, Boston College School of Nursing): We're thriving, but I know we're overwhelmed by trying to meet the demand for our school.

GOTBAUM: That's Judy Shindul Rothschild. She's a professor at the Boston College School of Nursing.

Last year, Boston College turned away 650 applicants to its nursing schools. This year, the college doubled its class size but, like most nursing programs, Boston College is desperately trying to find faculty.

Prof. ROTHSCHILD: You know, we beg, borrow and steal. We do anything. We'll have football tickets, hockey tickets. I'm not above scrounging for anything to entice people because the money is not terrific.

GOTBAUM: Nurse educators are on average even older than their (Unintelligible) colleagues, and half of them are expected to retire from teaching within the decade.

Schools have raised faculty salaries but they cannot compete with more lucrative industry jobs.

Several states are trying to address the issue. And on the national level, a battle is brewing - the White House wants to cut federal aid to nursing schools. Many see this as a shortsighted plan.

Professor PETER BUERHAUS (Nursing, Vanderbilt University): We are not going to forever have all this interest in nursing.

GOTBAUM: Peter Buerhaus is a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University.

Prof. BUERHAUS: And the more we turn away people, they will be less likely to come back again next year. And we're not talking about a lot of money, were talking probably, at most $1 billion, which is decimal dust.

GOTBAUM: Congress is expected to debate the issue later this month. But even if the country manages to train more nurses, the federal government estimates that the United States will need to produce 90 percent more nurse graduates to meet the demand for RNs in the coming years.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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