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A Tale of Two Tsunamis: How a Shortfall of Nurses Could Further Complicate Baby Boomer Retirement

Created Jun 23 2014, 08:00 PM by Lippincott Solutions
  • nursing shortage
  • Baby Boomer retirement
  • silver tsunami
  • hospital preparedness

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Baby Boomer retirement will bring with it a Silver Tsunami of patients seeking care and a shortage of Baby Boomer RNs to care for them.

The passage of some 75 million Baby Boomers into retirement over the next couple of decades is expected to be so socially significant that it’s earned its own name: the Silver Tsunami. Not without its controversy, the term “Silver Tsunami” paints a vivid picture of the massive wave of older adults expected in years to come to leave the workforce, enroll in Medicare, and increasingly use the healthcare system.

Born between 1946 and 1964, the Baby Boomer generation has a longer life expectancy than its predecessor.  It also has more chronic conditions, specifically higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes. On the financial side, many Baby Boomers were significantly hampered by the 2008 recession, which essentially drained their savings and put a real limit on how much they can afford to pay out-of-pocket for healthcare, not to mention housing.

Another Tsunami: A Nursing Shortage

Enter another tsunami warning: RN retirements. Some 55% of RNs are 50 or older, according to a survey conducted last year by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers. Within the next 15 years, more than 1 million Baby Boomer RNs will reach retirement age themselves, the Health Resources and Services Administration estimates. Throw in the more than 32 million Americans expected to gain access to healthcare through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the timing could hardly be worse.

“By 2022, total employment of RNs and [advanced practice nurses] will increase by 574,400 jobs,” warns Peter McMenamin, PhD, senior policy fellow at the American Nurses Association. “In fact, with RN retirements also in the mix, the nation will need to have produced 1.13 million new RNs by 2022 to fill those jobs. “

Reinforcing the RN Workforce

Rest assured, nursing organizations and nurse-led initiatives are working hard to address the coming storms. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing is dedicated to both maximizing and expanding enrollment capacity in schools of nursing across the nation in an effort to prepare a new generation of nurses to replace retiring RNs. The association’s centralized application service for nursing programs, NursingCAS, aims to ensure every available seat in every nursing program is filled. Last year alone, it identified 16,000 vacant seats that may have otherwise remained empty.  

The association is also leading the call for policymakers and other potential partners to help nursing schools expand their capacity. It promotes strategic partnerships like a recent one between the Minnesota VA Health Care System and the University of Minnesota effort, in which the VA provided $5.3 million for the nursing school to hire additional faculty, prepare more BSN nurses and effectively enhance future healthcare for veterans—providing a win-win for both sides.

Meanwhile, programs like Johnson and Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future continues to be an impressive force in attracting potential nurses to the profession. Through powerful TV commercials and an informative website, the Campaign for Nursing’s Future shares glimpses into nurses’ work and provides practical, easy-to-use information on topics like how to pay for nursing school and scholarship availability.

Hospital Preparedness

Hospitals, too, are turning to nurse-led initiatives to prepare for the Silver Tsunami. To date, more than 575 hospitals and other healthcare organizations have signed up for the Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders, or NICHE, program, based at the NYU College of Nursing. The nurse-driven program helps hospitals ramp up their care of men and women 65 and older to provide a truly patient-centered experience.

In the January issue of Hospitals & Health Networks, reporter Paul Barr provides a comprehensive  overview of the challenges the healthcare system faces as a result of the aging Baby Boomers. While much is unknown at this point, he points to several ways the healthcare system may adapt, through:

  • more effective and efficient models for healthcare delivery, such as Accountable Care Organizations and patient-centered medical homes.
  • new Medicare reimbursement models that are linked to quality, not quantity, of services.
  • an increased use of technology to monitor patients’ medical status at home that could replace or enhance traditional office visits—and a perceived willingness of Baby Boomers to use it.

“In an ideal world, the new, more-efficient care models and the improvements in technology and care itself will increase health care's supply capacity enough to offset the extra demand created by the boomers,” Barr writes.

“The alternative is not attractive.”

How concerned are you about the Silver Tsunami? How has it begun to affect your work setting?   

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