Team of medical professionals in a medical facility talking with each other.
Team of medical professionals in a medical facility talking with each other.

Nursing shortage in Australia: Current data and a look at the future

Nursing

In times of crisis, the importance of medical professionals quickly shifts from essential to critical. This has been the case throughout Australia’s history, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Australia has, in fact, a long history of rapidly needing medical professionals, including during and after the world wars, as well as throughout the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic. One common thing in all of these periods was that qualified nurses were constantly in short supply.  

Alarmingly, though, nursing shortages are becoming more and more widespread. Australia is currently experiencing a dire nurse shortage. Nurses play a critical part in Australia’s health ecosystem. Currently, there are approximately 303,000 registered nurses in Australia, but many more qualified nurses are needed. 

The nursing shortage is complex and requires further examination. 

Nursing shortage key issues

In the medical profession, there are more nurses than in any other profession. However, there are still simply not enough, as nurses face a number of key issues, which means there’s more demand but also less supply than ever before. 

Aging population    

In many nations, the population is aging and fast: Baby Boomers (those born after World War II) outnumber any other generation. In fact, in many countries, there are more people over 65 than there ever have been in the past. 

With this aging population comes increased demand for health services. Many older adults have a variety of different health problems and often multiple comorbidities. Fortunately, many diseases that were once terminal are now survivable, but this requires a lot more care. 

Aging workforce   

Just as Baby Boomers are aging, so is the nurse population. Many nurses are now within a decade of retirement age, and there aren’t enough new nurses to replace them. Also with nurses retiring, it’s harder to train the new generations of nurses. 

Gendered workforce   

Traditionally, most nurses were female, and this hasn’t changed: 88 per cent of Australia’s nurses are still female. With this comes the challenge of maternity leave. Nurses may take maternity leave but not return to the profession, or not return in a full-time capacity, which makes shortages even greater. 

Violence    

Violence in healthcare has worsened nursing shortages. The Australian College of Nursing (ACN) reports that violence against nurses is on the rise, with approximately 10 per cent of nurses reporting some kind of assault. These conditions mean that many nurses are either leaving or considering leaving the profession.

Nurse burnout       

Nurses – who possess a high level of training and are expected to be skilled and empathetic communicators as well as problem-solvers – have been driven by their giving and goodness. However, nurses can only give so much, and the pressures of the global pandemic and a disjointed healthcare system are testing their mental health.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic tested the resolve of many – if not most – nurses, with many struggling with the pressure to care for patients, even when it may not have been safe. Growing workloads and mandatory overtime are among other factors causing nurse burnout.

Despite the fact that the pressure of the pandemic has now eased, many nurses are still feeling burnt out, with approximately 28.73 per cent saying they’re considering quitting. 

Nursing shortage not set to ease anytime soon   

The pressure placed on nurses and the nursing shortage that has emerged isn’t, unfortunately, something that’s set to ease in the future. Research by Health Workforce Australia (HWA) shows that, due to the aging workforce and many other factors, there could be a shortfall of more than 100,000 nurses by 2025, and 123,000 by 2030. Australia’s population has more than doubled in the past five decades, and this trend is projected to increase, adding to the current nursing and healthcare shortage.

Strategies to combat the nursing shortage in Australia

There’s no doubt that there’s a severe nurse shortage in Australia and that it will take time, effort and a number of strategies in order to combat this complex issue. Here are a number of initiatives that are being put into place.

Re-entry to nursing   

While many people are returning to the nursing profession, there are still not enough professionally trained nurses available to fill Australia’s current nursing shortage. For this reason, nurses who are retired or who have taken a break are being incentivised to return to nursing practice.

Nurse retention   

Many issues that contribute to the nursing shortage, such as burnout, violence and inadequate staffing ratios, have made it difficult to retain nurses and other healthcare professionals. Addressing these issues and prioritising nurse mental health can help increase overall job satisfaction and nurse retention. 

Offering flexible study options

Prospective and current nurses may need to juggle work with family. For this reason, one key initiative that can help ensure that nursing students, especially those with families, can continue to study is to offer flexible study options. These options include being able to study part-time and online. 

Bringing nurses in from overseas 

Australia allows nurses to migrate under a special scheme that recognises talent shortages in Australia. International nurses, especially those with equivalent qualifications, are able to obtain a working visa and also have pathways to permanent residency. 

Take the next step in your nursing career 

Despite the current challenges facing the healthcare sector and nursing workforce in Australia, nursing continues to be an extremely rewarding career. Access to quality healthcare is more essential than ever, and no group makes a bigger impact on patient care than nurses. 

As Australia’s nursing shortage continues, nursing leadership will be vital to the success of our healthcare system. Nurses with high-level leadership knowledge and skills are needed to achieve better outcomes for patients, build strong teams and create positive working environments.

If you want to take your career as a registered nurse to the next level and prepare for the challenges of clinical leadership, VU Online’s Master of Nursing offers you the opportunity to specialise in Nursing Leadership and help you reach your goals.