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Our Disappearing Nurses

A nursing shortage looms on the horizon, not just nationally, but also here in Hawaii. Can the problem be fixed before it's too late?


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Hob Osterlund is a nurse, one of those essential professionals we tend to take for granted, since they’re always around when we need to have our wounds dressed, our babies delivered, our hearts bypassed.

But Osterlund, like so many Hawaii residents, stands on the threshold of retirement: She turns 60 in September. Therein lies the rub. Just as the baby boomers are entering their golden years in mass numbers — a time that coincides with a greater need for medical care — the nurses who do so much of that caring are getting older, too.

Osterlund, a registered nurse with a master’s degree, lives on Kauai and travels to Honolulu to work three 12-hour shifts at The Queen’s Medical Center. It’s a job she especially values because the hospital has worked hard to make a national name for itself in her specialty: pain and palliative care. She’s been a nurse for 30 years, and still loves it, although her commute is becoming increasingly expensive and the physical, social and economic ills of her patients have gotten more complex. Still, she has no plans to retire just yet.

Many of her colleagues across the nation are retiring, however, and their departure is contributing to a nursing shortage of serious—and snowballing—proportions. The AARP anticipates the nation will be short some 1 million nurses by 2020. In Hawaii, the deficit of 960 nurses recorded in 2006 is expected to grow to 2,700 nurses over the next 12 years—about a quarter of the projected need.

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