Blog » A Different Kind of Nursing Shortage, and How to Prepare

A Different Kind of Nursing Shortage, and How to Prepare

Created May 22 2017, 08:00 PM by Lippincott Solutions
  • nursing shortage
  • quality of care

Tuesday, May 23, 2017
With Baby Boomer nurses poised for retirement, millions of years of nursing experience will be lost annually across nursing units nationwide, experts say.

When referring to the potential for a nursing shortage, conventional thought tends to consider two key factors: nurses leaving the workforce and nurses entering the workforce. The difference between those numbers predicts whether or not a shortage of nurses is likely to occur.

But a recent article on the Health Affairs blog by a trio of prominent nursing researchers looks at the potential for a nursing shortage in a different way: cumulative years of experience among nurses in the workforce. With the anticipated wave of retiring Baby Boomer nurses, it predicts millions of years of nursing experience will be lost annually across nursing units nationwide. Actually, the trend is already underway (the number of experience-years lost was an estimated 1.7 million in 2015). And the piece warns that decision-makers should take the situation seriously.  

“It is imperative,” write Peter Buerhaus, David Auerbach, and Douglas Staiger, “that health care leaders recognize that as the retirement of RNs ramps up, a different type of nursing shortage will emerge—one of knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment, all attributes that contribute to the successful clinical and administrative operations of complex health care delivery systems.”


“The retirement of one million RNs from the nursing workforce between now and 2030 will mean that their accumulated years of nursing experience leave with them,” the article explains. “The departure of such a large cohort of experienced RNs from the workforce means that patient care settings and other organizations that depend on RNs will face a significant loss of nursing knowledge and expertise that will be felt for many years to come.”

Quality of care could suffer, the writers put forth. They are quick to explain, though, that they are not suggesting new nurses are less qualified to provide quality care. Rather, they are acknowledging that experience equips nurses with informal-yet-practical expertise. In short, years on the job teaches them how to manage all kinds of clinical and organizational challenges.

For example, the authors continue, seasoned nurses are generally:

  • quicker to notice complications in patients,
  • adept at working an institution’s culture to “get things done,”
  • better at matching nurses’ knowledge and skills with the needs of patients for effective clinical assignments,
  • well-equipped to deal with administrators and physicians for the good of their patients and families, and
  • able to act as mentors and role models for other nurses.

“All of these attributes can matter greatly in providing a consistent, predictable, and safe patient environment,” the authors note. “It is not difficult to recognize these nurses—often they are the clinical and organizational leaders who are counted on to ensure smooth operations of clinical and administrative systems.”


With all they have to lose, chief nurse executives and other hospital leaders should be quick to prepare for the upcoming exodus of Baby Boomer nurses.

The article recommends four specific actions:

  1. Gather information on how many nurses are planning to retire and when, and look at how those retirements will affect nursing units, departments and specific patient populations.
  2. Work with department and unit leaders to find out what can be done to delay the retirements of trusted and valued nurses. Decreasing hours, modifying responsibilities, providing new assignments (in less physically demanding areas such as patient navigation, community engagement or education), and improving policies that dissatisfy nurses are all options for retaining older nurses.
  3. Create programs to bring more experienced nurses together with up-and-coming nurses so the younger can learn from their older, wiser counterparts.
  4. Review and bolster succession planning to make sure retiring nurse managers are succeeded by nurses with the necessary preparation in management areas (budgeting, team building, program development, etc.).

When it comes to preparing for this new kind of shortage, there’s no time like the present, the article emphasizes. As the authors conclude, “Now is the time to anticipate and prepare for the retirement wave of the nation’s RN workforce.”