By James Ledbetter on NewYorker.com
There is an outcry in the United States that we’re facing an urgent nurse deficit that threatens the safety of individual patients and the nation’s health as a whole. Consider arguments from two Times editorials. “The nationwide shortage of nurses is likely to reach crisis proportions…. There is not much chance for permanent relief until the nursing profession is made more attractive to young people through better salaries, working conditions and public recognition,” one reads. In another, titled “We Need More Nurses,” Alexandra Robbins warns of dire consequences in the absence of a larger nursing workforce: “The more patients assigned to a nurse, the higher the patients’ risk of death, infections, complications, falls, failure-to-rescue rates and readmission to the hospital—and the longer their hospital stay.”
Robbins’s article was published this May. The first, however, was published in 1965. Is it really possible that the United States has not had enough nurses for half a century? As evidence for their arguments, medical groups tend to tout quantitative research—one 2012 study, for example, projects shortages reaching as high as seven figures between now and 2030, with especially acute gaps in the South and the West. But another article, published the same year in the New England Journal of Medicine, noted that during the eighteen-month recession that began in December, 2007, the United States economy as a whole lost 7.5 million jobs, while hospital employment of registered nurses showed its biggest gain in four decades. The authors even asked if we are experiencing a nursing “bubble.” Ultimately, though, they too concluded that shortages will recur.