When Evaluating Physician and Nurse Shortages, Consider the Source

November 19, 2013
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doctor and nurse shortage‘Alarming’ Physician Shortages Lie Ahead, according to a HealthLeaders headline that’s bound to raise your blood pressure.

doctor and nurse shortage‘Alarming’ Physician Shortages Lie Ahead, according to a HealthLeaders headline that’s bound to raise your blood pressure. Chances are you’ve seen even scarier articles about the looming nursing shortage, with predictions of a shortage of hundreds of thousands of nurses in the coming decades.

We do have serious doctor and nurse workforce issues in this country and we need to plan for the future, but before you get too worked up, it makes sense to consider the source of these pronouncements. The latest doctor shortage warning is brought to us by the Association of American Medical Colleges, a group whose objectives are to expand medical school enrollment and boost federal funding for residency programs. The original article appears in the current Health Affairs issue that’s devoted to “redesigning the health care workforce.” As I mentioned earlier this week (Talking sense about the physician workforce), the issue as a whole is a breath of fresh air in that it is largely free of the alarmist approach to the topic. My favorite articles Expanding Primary Care Capacity By Reducing Waste And Improving The Efficiency Of Care and Accelerating Physician Workforce Transformation Through Competitive Graduate Medical Education Funding demonstrate sound, innovative alternatives to simply jacking up the number of medical students. Maybe HealthLeaders should cover the full issue rather than just the extreme perspective.

As I’ve documented repeatedly, the nursing shortage is a myth. Nursing schools have boosted their enrollment and students have flocked to borrow money for tuition with the expectation of secure job prospects. And yet many new nurses can’t find jobs. Look closely and you’ll find that many of those that talk about a nursing shortage are the nursing schools that train nurses and not those who employ nurses – such as hospitals. In this case, proponents of the nursing shortage myth have harmed would-be nurses by misleading them about the job market.

So yes, let’s have a rational discourse about workforce needs and consider training more people when appropriate. But let’s not get too worked up by self-interested attempts to boost the medical and nursing school industries.

(doctor and nurse / shutterstock)