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Survey Says: Total Number, Average Age of Nurses Both on the Rise

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By Christina Orlovsky, senior staff writer

At a time when the nation’s shortage of nurses often receives top news billing, new results of a national nurse survey shine a positive light on the state of the profession. According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, the number of RNs living and working in the United States increased nearly 8 percent in the last four years. The current total: 2,909,467.

Data for the most recent survey, which is conducted every four years by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), was gathered from March 2004 through November 2005. Preliminary results were released at the end of 2005.

While the total nursing population reflected a 7.9 percent increase from the 2000 study, it was still considerably lower than the 14.2 percent increase between 1992 and 1996, the highest growth rate in the profession since 1980.

In addition to estimating the total RN population, the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (NSSRN) gathered statistics about employment, education, age, earnings and other demographical information about registered nurses. The study determined that the great majority (83.2 percent) of licensed RNs were employed at the time of the survey. Of all licensed nurses, 58.3 percent were working full time, nearly 25 percent were working part time and 16.8 percent were not employed in nursing.

The survey also reported on a number of trends in the nursing profession. Among them is the increased average age of the professional nurse, which climbed from 45.2 years in 2000 to 46.8 years in 2004. Only slightly more than one-quarter of all nurses (26.6 percent) were under age 40, with only 16.6 percent under age 35. These numbers have decreased since 2000. Conversely, the percentage of nurses older than age 50 increased from 24.3 percent in 2000 to 25.5 percent in 2004. In the past two decades since 1980, this population has increased by more than 8 percent.

In addition to increases in total population and average age, initial educational preparation is also occurring at a higher level than in past surveys. Nursing students are shifting away from diploma programs toward associate and bachelor’s degree programs, with 25.2 licensed nurses completing diploma programs for their initial preparation. This figure is down significantly from 63.2 percent in 1980. Consequently, the number of RNs who completed associate degree programs has risen from 19 percent in 1980 to 42.2 percent in 2004. The percentage of registered nurses whose initial preparation began at the bachelor’s degree level has also increased from 17.3 percent in 1980 to 30.5 percent in 2004.

The highest increase in educational preparation was reported by nurses receiving master’s or doctorate degrees. In this category, an increase of 37 percent was reported between 2000 and 2004. In fact, the number of RNs whose highest degree was a master’s degree or doctorate has increased by 339 percent in the past two-and-a-half decades, from 85,860 nurses in 1980 to 377,046 nurses in 2004.

Another consistent trend is the underrepresentation of males and ethnic minorities in the nursing industry. Only 5.5 percent of all licensed RNs were male, while less than 15 percent of RNs fell into a non-White ethnic category. In 2004, 88.4 percent of licensed RNs were identified as White; 4.6 percent, African American; 3.3 percent, Asian or Pacific Islander; 1.8 percent, Hispanic; and 0.4 percent, American Indian.

Additional findings about employment and earnings include:

  • The majority of RNs, or 56.2 percent, worked in hospital settings; 14.3 percent worked in community and public health settings; 6.3 percent worked in nursing homes or extended care facilities. Other professional settings included nursing schools, federal agencies, health associations or state boards of nursing and insurance companies.
  • Average annual earnings increased from $46,782 in 2000 to $57,784 in 2004.
  • Advanced practice nurses, including clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, made up 8.3 percent of the total nurse population in 2004, up from 7.3 percent in 2000.

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