Why nurses return to work when unemployment grows

Earlier today, Sarah Kliff reported that “nurse practitioners are rolling out a campaign this week to explain what, exactly, nurse practitioners do — and why patients should trust them with their medical needs.” Anticipating a shortage of physicians, nurses are asserting that they can help fill the void.

Though not the same as nurse practitioners, the ranks of registered nurses have swelled due to the poor economy and, somewhat paradoxically, high unemployment. Staiger, Auerbach, and Buehaus explain (ungated),

Whereas the national economy lost 7.5 million jobs, the health care industry gained 428,000 jobs. In particular, hospital employment of registered nurses (RNs) increased by an estimated 243,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in 2007 and 2008. […]

This sharp rise in RN employment is probably attributable to several factors. During economic downturns, demand for health care continues unabated, and RNs tend to fill existing job vacancies because of their concerns about their personal (or their family’s) economic uncertainty and diminished alternative opportunities. In addition, because approximately 7 in 10 RNs are married women, an economic downturn may have a particularly large effect, since many RNs who were not working or were working part-time may rejoin the workforce or change to full-time status to bolster their household’s economic security.

The final sentence quoted is a bit odd. Is it the fact that the RNs are mostly women or mostly married, or both, that is important? Why? Yes, I can speculate, but I think the authors should have devoted one more sentence of explanation.

In any case, what goes up, comes down. When the unemployment rate falls, RN employment will fall with it, all other things held constant. That may exacerbate the anticipated physician shortage, increasing an opportunity for registered nurses.


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