Geographic Variations in Health Care Workforce Training in the US: The Case of Registered Nurses (RNs)

Blustein, Jan
Med Care. 2011 Aug;49(8):769-74.

Background: In the United States, registered nurses [RNs] are trained through one of three educational pathways: a diploma course; an associate's degree, or a baccalaureate degree in nursing (the BSN). A national consensus has emerged that the proportion of RNs that are baccalaureate-trained should be substantially increased. Yet achieving that goal may be difficult in areas where college graduates are unlikely to reside.

Objectives: To determine whether the level of training of the hospital registered nurse [RN] workforce varies geographically, along with the education of the local general workforce.

Research design: Cross sectional, ecological study.

Subjects: Hospital nurses who participated in the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses [NSSRN] in 2004 (n = 16,567).

Measures. Registered Nurse training was measured as Diploma, Associates degree, or Baccalaureate degree or above. County-level general workforce quality was assessed as the adult college graduation rate. Counties were divided into US population quartiles, with the highest quartile (Q4) having more than 29.3% college graduates, and the lowest quartile (Q1) having fewer than 16.93% college graduates.

Results: Hospital RNs have a higher level of training in counties where the general population is better
educated. For example, in Q4, 55.2% of hospital RNs are baccalaureate-trained, in Q3, 50.2%; in Q2,45.2%; and in Q1, 34.9% (p < .001 for all pairwise comparisons). The association between RN training and general workforce education is found in cities, towns and rural areas.

Conclusions: Nationwide, there are substantial geographic variations in the training of hospital RNs. Educational segregation (the tendency for educated people to cluster geographically) may make it more difficult to achieve a BSN-rich nursing workforce in some areas of the US. Further work is needed to assess whether educational segregation similarly influences the distribution of other health care professionals, and whether it leads to variations in the local quality of care.

Wagner Faculty