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Nursing Fact Sheet

  • Nursing is the nation's largest health care profession, with more than 3.1 million registered nurses nationwide. Of all licensed RNs, 2.6 million or 84.8% are employed in nursing. 1

  • Registered Nurses comprise one of the largest segments of the U.S. workforce as a whole and are among the highest paying large occupations. Nearly 58% of RNs worked in general medical and surgical hospitals, where RN salaries averaged $66,700 per year. RNs comprised the largest segment of professionals working in the healthcare industry.2

  • Nurses comprise the largest single component of hospital staff, are the primary providers of hospital patient care, and deliver most of the nation's long-term care.

  • Most healthcare services involve some form of care by nurses. In 1980, 66% of all employed RNs worked in hospitals. By 2008, that number had declined slightly to 62.2% as more health care moved to sites beyond the hospital and nurses increased their ranks in a wide range of other settings, including private practices, health maintenance organizations, public health agencies, primary care clinics, home health care, nursing homes, outpatient surgicenters, nursing-school-operated nursing centers, insurance and managed care companies, schools, mental health agencies, hospices, the military, industry, nursing education, and health care research. 3

  • Though often working collaboratively, nursing does not "assist" medicine or other fields. Nursing operates independent of, not auxiliary to, medicine and other disciplines. Nurses' roles range from direct patient care and case management to establishing nursing practice standards, developing quality assurance procedures, and directing complex nursing care systems.

  • With more than four times as many RNs in the United States as physicians, nursing delivers an extended array of health care services, including primary and preventive care by advanced nurse practitioners in such areas as pediatrics, family health, women's health, and gerontological care. Nursing's scope also includes services by certified nurse-midwives and nurse anesthetists, as well as care in cardiac, oncology, neonatal, neurological, and obstetric/gynecological nursing and other advanced clinical specialties.

  • The primary pathway to professional nursing, as compared to technical-level practice, is the four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree . Registered nurses are prepared either through a BSN program; a three-year associate degree in nursing; or a three-year hospital training program, receiving a hospital diploma. All take the same state licensing exam. (The number of diploma programs has declined steadily -- to less than 10 percent of all basic RN education programs -- as nursing education has shifted from hospital-operated instruction into the college and university system.) 

  • To meet the more complex demands of today's healthcare environment, the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice has recommended that at least two-thirds of the basic nurse workforce hold baccalaureate or higher degrees in nursing. 4 Aware of the need, RNs are seeking the BSN degree in increasing numbers. In 1980, almost 55 percent of employed registered nurses held a hospital diploma as their highest educational credential, 22 percent held the bachelor's degree, and 18 percent an associate degree. By 2008, a diploma was the highest educational credential for only 13.9 percent of RNs, while the number with bachelor's degrees as their highest education had climbed to 36.8 percent, with 36.1 percent holding an associate degree as their top academic preparation.5 In 2010, 22,531 RNs with diplomas or associate degrees graduated from BSN programs.6

  • In 2008, 13.2 percent of the nation's registered nurses held either a master's or doctoral degree as their highest educational preparation. 7 The current demand for master's- and doctorally prepared nurses for advanced practice, clinical specialties, teaching, and research roles far outstrips the supply.

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nursing is the top occupation in terms of the largest job growth from 2008 - 2018.8 Government analysts project that more than 581,500 new RN jobs will be created through 2018. Other projections indicate that by 2025, the U.S. nursing shortage will grow to more than 260,000 registered nurses.9 Even as health care continues to shift beyond the hospital to more community-based primary care and other outpatient sites, federal projections say the rising complexity of acute care will see demand for RNs in hospitals climb by 36 percent by 2020.10


  1. Health Resources and Services Administration. (September 2010). The Registered Nurse Population: Findings From the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2010, May). Occupational Employment and Wages for 2009. Access online at

  3. See Note 1.

  4. National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice. (October 1996). Report to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services on the Basic Registered Nurse Workforce. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Nursing.

  5. See Note 1.

  6. American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2011). 2010-2011 Enrollment and graduations in baccalaureate and graduate programs in nursing. Washington, DC: Author.

  7. See Note 1.

  8. Lacey, T.A. & Wright, B. (2010). Occupational Employment Projections to 2018. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  9. Buerhaus, P.I., Auerbach, D.I., & Staiger, D.O. (2009, July-August). The recent surge in nurse employment: causes and implications. Health Affairs, 28(4), w657-w668.

  10. See Note 4.

Last Update: April 11, 2011


Robert Rosseter
(202) 463-6930, ext. 231