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Problematic trends for registered nurse workforce, report reveals

Ottawa, October 8, 2013 — According to the latest registered nurse (RN) workforce data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), the bulge of RNs approaching retirement age is swelling. The Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) is concerned that the number of RNs age 60 and older matches the proportion of those younger than 30. And while the workforce continues to grow overall, 2011-2012 saw the smallest increase in a number of years.

“The latest workforce data illustrates a concerning trend — one that requires greater awareness and immediate policy intervention” said CNA president Barb Mildon. “A slower growth rate coupled with an aging workforce equal a profession under a great strain. In the name of patient safety and an effective health-care system, governments and employers need to be prepared to respond to a workforce in critical transition.”

A striking gap is the difference between the number of new graduates and the growth in the RN workforce. More than 10,000 RNs graduated in each of the past three years, but the net gain has been disappointing; in 2011-2012, only 1,083 RNs were added to the workforce. What happened to the other 8,917 RNs? How Canada currently collects and reports health workforce data does not provide enough information to determine what the real story is — where the gap lies. The data provides little in the way of a clear picture to help plan for the workforce that is needed to support the growing and changing health needs of Canadians. Knowing whether the numbers of RNs in the system are shifting because of retirements or career changes — or leaving the profession because suitable employment is unavailable — would be invaluable insight for health-care planning.

The evidence we do have suggests that governments and service delivery organizations need to increase the proportion of full-time employment positions, retain new nursing graduates and update legislation to enable RNs to work to the full scope of their education and capabilities. Strategies to improve the physical and psychological health and safety of RNs would also contribute to a reduction in absenteeism and increases in productivity and retention.

“We know there are economic realities,” said Mildon. “In times of tighter health spending, it is necessary to ensure that resources are being used effectively and appropriately to provide the best care to Canadians. Governments, health administrators and the nursing profession alike must see to it that Canada’s RNs are not being misused, overused or underused. In other words, it is through their appropriate use that we can realize meaningful improvements in population health and performance of the system.”

Report highlights include:

  • The supply of RNs eligible to practise in Canada grew at roughly the same rate as the general population between 2008 and 2012, reaching a total of 292,883. While the RN workforce increased steadily over this period, reaching 271,807, the number of RNs per 100,000 population declined slightly from 786 to 779.
  • Where RNs work was largely unchanged between 2008 and 2012: 61.6% in hospitals, 15.4% in the community health sector and 9.6% in the long-term care sector. RNs employed in the territories were most likely to work in the community health sector (41.8%).
  • Just more than 10.5% of the RN workforce was employed in a rural or remote area in 2012, the lowest proportion among all the Canadian regulated nursing groups.
  • The number of nurse practitioners (NPs) employed in nursing almost doubled between 2008 and 2012, from 1,626 to 3,157. However, NPs still make up only 1% of the RN workforce.
  • Even though a majority of NPs worked outside of hospitals in 2012 (59.8%), the percentage has fallen from 69.2% in 2008.

Visit CIHI to download the report: Regulated Nurses, 2012.

CNA is the national professional voice of registered nurses in Canada. A federation of 11 provincial and territorial nursing associations and colleges representing more than 150,000 registered nurses, CNA advances the practice and profession of nursing to improve health outcomes and strengthen Canada’s publicly funded, not-for-profit health system.


For more information, please contact:

Kate Headley, External Communications Coordinator
Canadian Nurses Association
Telephone: 613-237-2159, ext. 561
Cell: 613-697-7507
E-mail: kheadley@cna-aiic.ca