The Why Files The Why Files --

Emergency: Doctor, nurse shortage ahead?


Getting old, getting gray. Getting health care?wooden crane for walking
As the Demos prepare to take control of the House and Senate, health care is high on their "to-do" list. Plenty of hurdles stand between the status quo and the goal of adequate health care for all: Health insurance paperwork. Soaring cost. Questions about fairness and access. Even questions about the definition of "adequate health care."Graph shows skyrocketing numbers of population over the age of 65

Old people are a fast-growing proportion of the American population. Who will take care of them? Graph: U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration

And what about the health-care workforce? The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the demand for registered nurses in the United States will exceed the supply by 800,000 nurses in 2020. And we've also seen some predictions that a doctor shortage will parallel the nurse shortage.

An aging population gets part of the blame for the rising demand for health care -- as people enter their 70s, they start to spend an alarming amount of time inside hospitals. And in the United States, as in Europe and Japan, old people are the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Meanwhile, aging nurses and doctors are pondering retirement.

Graph demonstrates disparity between number of nurses we have and number we need
By 2020, the nurse supply could be 36 percent below the demand. Based on data from U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration

Doctor: manage thyself
Considering how much health care is typically needed during the last months of life, won't the greater proportion of old people stress the health-care sector? Not necessarily, says Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, in Washington, D.C. He calculates that the aging U.S. population will raise the cost of hospitalization by a little more than 0.7 percent per year, while population growth will add another 0.9 percent. Combined, these two changes will account for only one-eighth of the overall increase in inpatient hospital expenses, Ginsburg says. Other factors, such as the wave of obesity and the use of new medical technology, will be far more important (see "The Effect of Population AgingÉ" in the bibliography).

Three bright orange cranes loom large over gaping hole of a construction site.
Cranes crowd the skyline in Madison, Wis. As University Hospital builds yet another wing, how will it find enough professional staff to serve a growing, aging population?

So where will we find the next generation of health care workers?

What can we do about the impending nurse shortage?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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