Examining the Impact of the Nursing Shortage on Patient Care

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A friendly female nurse checks in with a senior patient.The U.S. is facing an unprecedented nursing shortage. This shortage is primarily driven by the aging population, which creates a higher demand for care. With the youngest baby boomers reaching retirement age, the nation now has more Americans over the age of 65 than ever before. While medical advances, fortunately, allow for increased longevity among the elderly, the added number of patients is putting a strain on the health care system.

A deep look into the impact of the nursing shortage on patient care reveals several added factors are at play. These include, but are not limited to, the growing number of nurses reaching retirement age, a nationwide decline in the number of nursing professors, and health care reform aimed at increasing access to public health care. In turn, these societal and medical factors lead to staffing shortages that can produce lower morale and higher turnover rates among nurses.

Individuals who are interested in advancing their nursing careers and becoming part of the solution to the nursing shortage should consider pursuing an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing degree.

The Nursing Shortage at a Glance

The American Nurses Association (ANA) predicts there will be 100,000 more nursing positions than nurses to fill them by 2022. This nursing shortage will have a major impact on patient care. The nation also faces a shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. These shortfalls are already negatively affecting the nation’s health care system, with staffing shortages leading to nurse burnout. The aging population means that not only are there more patients needing care in their golden years, but more nurses will be retiring, exacerbating the shortfall. Furthermore, rural communities are being impacted more than urban areas.

The Nursing Shortage’s Impact on Patient Care

The dearth of nurses can have a debilitating effect on patient care. It means that fewer nurses must care for more patients, which can lead to an increase in errors and higher rates of mortality and failure-to-rescue situations.

A 2018 study published in the medical journal The BMJ found the risk of death increases by 3% for every day a patient is treated in a facility that has a nursing shortage. This nursing shortfall also leads to lower patient satisfaction rates and increased dissatisfaction among the nurses themselves. Overworked caregivers who are unable to take time for themselves can experience compassion fatigue and suffer from a lack of sleep.

Rural areas face an even greater challenge as fewer health care practitioners choose to live in these communities. A string of hospital closures in rural communities has also led to a shortage of care providers and limited access to health care. Programs that are designed to give medical and nursing school graduates incentives to assume positions in rural areas can help increase the level of care available to these communities, but those programs aren’t meeting the need.

One solution may be to provide nurses with the right to provide broader care, which can help alleviate the pressure on rural physicians.

How Nurse Leaders Can Help

Nurses in leadership positions can work to lighten staff workloads as much as possible to help prevent burnout. They need to promote professionalism, teamwork, and clear communication so that nurses willingly help one another in busy times. A nurse leader needs to be able to juggle numerous tasks, ranging from delegating responsibilities and creating shift schedules to overseeing patient care.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) can assume many of the tasks that are traditionally left to physicians. They are able to evaluate and diagnose patients, order and assess patient tests, and prescribe medications. In about half of the U.S., NPs are able to provide health care independent of a doctor, while in the other states and territories they are required to work with a doctor in one form or another.

NPs can lessen the load on physicians by caring for adults with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. To become an NP, a nurse must earn a Master of Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in addition to completing additional training.

Another factor that is contributing to the nursing shortage involves the number of academic nursing faculty. These numbers are declining as many teachers reach retirement age themselves. With fewer nursing instructors, fewer nursing students can be accommodated. Becoming a nursing instructor can help alleviate this shortage, thereby allowing for more registered nurses to enter the workforce. Nursing professors need at minimum a master’s degree in nursing as well as several years of clinical experience.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of available by 52.4% between 2019 and 2029, which is the second-fastest rate compared to all other occupations. In regions with large retirement populations, demand for nurses will be even higher.

Becoming a Nurse Leader

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program is designed for practicing registered nurses who are seeking to expand their expertise and advance their careers.

The program’s core curriculum combines advanced nursing theory with evidence-based nursing practice. In addition, students can complete all of their clinical requirements at approved facilities near their home or work. Those with a Nurse Educator concentration will benefit from such targeted courses as Advanced Pharmacology, Teaching Strategies in Nursing, and Academic Nursing.

Learn how Ohio University’s MSN program can help you pursue your professional goals.

Recommended Readings

Career Opportunities for Nurse Leaders
Millennials and Nursing Leadership
Role of the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Provider


Association of American Medical Colleges, “New Findings Confirm Predictions on Physician Shortage”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “What the Nursing Shortage Means for Healthcare”
Becker’s Hospital Review, “15 Things to Know about the Physician Shortage”
Health Care Dive, “Low Nurse Staffing Levels Directly Linked to Higher Patient Mortality, Study Finds”
Health Exec, “CNOs Say Nursing Shortages are Going to Get Worse”
Healthcare Leadership Blog, “Implications of Physician and Nurse Shortage”
Houston Chronicle, “Importance of Strong Nursing Leadership”
NCBI, “Nursing Shortage”Population Reference Bureau, “Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States”
Referral MD, “The Shocking Truth about the Nursing Shortage”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections – 2019-2029