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Nursing shortage hits US hospitals

THE United States health care system is pinched by a persistent nursing shortage that threatens the quality of patient care even as tens of thousands of people are turned away from nursing schools, according to experts.

The shortage has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama. During a White House meeting last Thursday to promote his promised health care system overhaul, Obama expressed alarm over the notion that the US might have to import trained foreign nurses because so many nursing jobs are unfilled.

Democratic US Representative Lois Capps, a former school nurse, said meaningful health care overhaul cannot occur without fixing the nursing shortage.

"Nurses deliver health care," Capps said.

An estimated 116,000 registered nurse positions are unfilled at US hospitals and nearly 100,000 jobs go vacant in nursing homes, experts said.

The shortage is expected to worsen in coming years as the 78 million people in the post-World War II baby boom generation begin to hit retirement age. An aging population requires more care for chronic illnesses and at nursing homes.

"The nursing shortage is not driven by a lack of interest in nursing careers. The bottleneck is at the schools of nursing because there's not a large enough pool of faculty," Robert Rosseter of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing said in a telephone interview.

Nursing colleges have been unable to expand enrollment levels to meet the rising demand, and some US lawmakers blame years of weak federal financial help for the schools.

Almost 50,000 qualified applicants to professional nursing programs were turned away in 2008, including nearly 6,000 people seeking to earn master's and doctoral degrees, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing said.

One reason for the faculty squeeze is that a nurse with the graduate degree needed to teach can earn more as a practicing nurse, about US$82,000, than teaching, about US$68,000.

Obama called nurses "the front lines of the health care system," adding: "They don't get paid very well. Their working conditions aren't as good as they should be."

The economic stimulus bill Obama signed last month included US$500 million to address shortages of health workers. About US$100 million of this could go to tackling the nursing shortage. There are about 2.5 million working US-registered nurses.

Peter Buerhaus, a nursing workforce expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said the nursing shortage is a "quality and safety" issue. Hospital staffs may be stretched thin due to unfilled nursing jobs, raising the risk of medical errors, safety lapses and delays in health care, he said.


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