Updated at 4:00 p.m. EST on February 12, 2016
Five years ago, my mother was rushed to the hospital for an aneurysm. For the next two weeks, my family and I sat huddled around her bed in the intensive-care unit, oscillating between panic, fear, uncertainty, and exhaustion.
It was nurses that got us through that time with our sanity intact. Nurses checked on my mother—and us—multiple times an hour. They ran tests, updated charts, and changed IVs; they made us laugh, allayed our concerns, and thought about our comfort. The doctors came in every now and then, but the calm dedication of the nurses was what kept us together. Without them, we would have fallen apart.
Which is just one reason why the prospect of a national nursing shortage is so alarming. The U.S. has been dealing with a nursing deficit of varying degrees for decades, but today—due to an aging population, the rising incidence of chronic disease, an aging nursing workforce, and the limited capacity of nursing schools—this shortage is on the cusp of becoming a crisis, one with worrying implications for patients and health-care providers alike.
America’s 3 million nurses make up the largest segment of the health-care workforce in the U.S., and nursing is currently one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. Despite that growth, demand is outpacing supply. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.2 million vacancies will emerge for registered nurses between 2014 and 2022.* By 2025, the shortfall is expected to be “more than twice as large as any nurse shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s,” a team of Vanderbilt University nursing researchers wrote in a 2009 paper on the issue.