MSU Covid Nurse

Montana State University third-year nursing student Rachel Nixon works at a Bozeman clinic during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, March 26, 2020. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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A researcher at Montana State University is involved in a nationwide study on how the pandemic will impact the nursing workforce and whether the country will see a shortage of registered nurses.

The project, which received grants totaling $430,000, will look at how the pandemic affected the nursing field in different regions and impacts to employment by gender, age, race and ethnicity.

“We’re talking about a profession that is one of the most trusted in the country, is right in the throes of it and holds the whole health care system together,” said Peter Buerhaus, director of the MSU Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies.

Buerhaus is MSU’s primary researcher on the study.

“If nursing is severely impacted by (the pandemic) then we might have widespread large shortages of nurses,” he said.

Buerhaus said there is no evidence yet that there’s a lack of nurses in health care. But that could change as the pandemic goes on if nurses die from the virus, retire early or if people decide not to pursue a career in the field as the surge in cases continues.

He said educators across the country have reported they had enough people applying and being accepted into their nursing programs this fall, but the study will look at if those numbers change in the next couple of years.

“I’m watching to see how this affects nurses, how nurses talk among themselves and whether they advise people to go into nursing,” Buerhaus said.

He said the researchers haven’t noticed a large number of nurses discouraging people interested in getting into the field because of possible risks, but, with the country in the middle of a surge of COVID-19 cases, it’s something they’re watching.

Buerhaus also estimated there were roughly 500,000 nurses who are members of the baby boomer generation and are expected to retire in the next decade.

What those nurses decide to do in the next few years will have an impact on whether the country is faced with a short-term shortage of nurses.

“Will they leave sooner because COVID is working them to death?” he said.

The study will also look at whether other nurses who aren’t baby boomers will retire or leave the profession early because “they’re exhausted and it’s overwhelming.”

“If those people should leave, if the retirement-aged people should leave and then next summer and fall less people are coming into the field, then we’ll be worried about the nursing (workforce),” he said.

Buerhaus, whose team has previously studied how big economic recessions affect the health care field, said this economic downturn has impacted the nursing workforce differently than previous ones.

Typically, nursing is a reliable field during a recession, and hospitals are able to continue hiring nurses. He said researchers have not seen that happen during the start of the economic downturn this year.

“Hospitals are no longer able to hire nurses because the pandemic was keeping patients out of the institutions,” he said.

Patients were either not able to come in or opted not to seek treatment. Hospitals and physicians offices then lost revenue and couldn’t afford to hire nurses.

“It’s a worrisome feature because some people go into nursing because this is a total secure job,” he said. “For the first time in my life of studying this, I saw nurses being furloughed.”

He said the study would also look at how the economy develops and how it affects the nursing workforce.

The project, planned to by completed by 2022, will also have progress reports and findings shared throughout the two-year study. The research will use data from surveys the federal government routinely conducts of the workforce.

Using the data they collect, the researchers will project the number of registered nurses through 2030. Earlier forecasts before the pandemic predicted the number of nurses would increase by at least one million.

The research is also being led by Douglas Staiger, a professor at Dartmouth College, and David Auerback, a director of research at the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission.

The study received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, the John A. Harford Foundation and UnitedHealth Group.

“Nurses serve as critical links between patients and other members of the care team, especially during a health crisis,” Mary Jo Jerde, a nurse and vice president of UnitedHealth Group Center for Clinician Advancement, said in a news release.

Buerhaus said the researchers would like to see some closure related to the pandemic so they could get a sense of what it did to the workforce, but the pandemic has not been easy to predict.

“If it doesn’t end and we continue to have this go on, it could lengthen the (study) period some,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.

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