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How Pharma Should Prepare for Looming Nursing Shortage

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: June 2023
Volume 43
Issue 6

The impact on clinical trial staffing would be particularly significant.

Mike Hollan

Mike Hollan
Pharm Exec Editor

One looming concern on the horizon is the predicted nursing shortage. This would not just cause difficulties for hospitals, but it would also cause problems during clinical trials. The Josh Bersin Company recently released a report stating that the healthcare industry is facing a severe nursing shortage in the coming years. In a report,1 they conclude that market factors will cause a gap of more than 2.1 million nurses and other care providers by 2025.

This isn’t a problem that pharma can just ignore. Clinical research nurses (CRNs) typically begin their careers in hospitals before earning their research nursing certificate. While hospitals will be the first sector of the industry to feel the impacts of the shortage, it will eventually hit the clinical trial space. As the industry is already facing a difficult financial environment, the last thing it needs is an increase in staffing costs or an inability to fill the necessary roles.

Kathi Enderes, senior vice president of research at The Josh Bersin Company, spoke with Pharmaceutical Executive about this research—the causes and the ways that the industry can mitigate the problem.

“Healthcare is already a big industry in the US, and one-in-six people work within it,” says Enderes. “If you meet seven people, statistically, one of them will work in healthcare. The pandemic has caused a lot of issues with healthcare, specifically, due to workers being on the front lines. Turnover—specifically of clinical workers who couldn’t work remotely and had to sometimes sleep in hotels to avoid infecting their families—increased significantly. A lot of people are leaving the industry. Also, about one quarter of nurses are close to retirement age.”

As a result, more people are leaving the industry than are entering it. According to Enderes, three million workers in the nursing profession will leave or retire by 2025. Between now and then, only about one million new workers are expected to join the industry. This will leave about every third seat in the profession open.

“Chief HR officers [at life science and medical organizations] say this is the biggest business problem they are facing,” says Enderes. “When they can’t get nurses on staff, they have to rely on travel nurses, who have much higher salaries compared to regular nurses. For the first time in 10 years, the issue at the top of CEOs’ minds is not financial pressures. It is the nursing shortage.”

Enderes explains that there are several options that companies should investigate, which involve employees that are already working in the industry. Pharma companies may want to start by expanding recruitment efforts now for CRNs. It can take several years for nurses to get certified for clinical research. Thus, it’s important to get started before the shortage makes potential applicants hard to find.

“Some organizations have faced turnover rates of 60–70% since the pandemic when the previous rates were just 17–20%,” notes Enderes. “They are looking into what they can do to retain these people and have a better experience. This can include higher wages, offering onsite childcare, pay equity, and other options.”

For pharma companies, it’s important to build and maintain relationships with CRNs. There are two obvious benefits to improving the experience for these nurses. First, fewer will retire and leave the industry. Secondly, companies that build these connections before the shortage hits will likely have an easier time filling staffing positions at clinical trial sites when nurses are harder to find.

Another option to find more nurses is reskilling other workers within companies across the pharma and healthcare landscape and allow them to branch out on to non-linear career paths toward nursing. Not every employee is going to want to change their career path, but it still may be advantageous to provide the option for those that do, especially since many of these workers may already have skills that are important to nursing, such as patient interaction skills and empathy. For example, pharma companies may want to look at workers in the trial recruitment field who have experience communicating with patients.

A nursing shortage would impact not just healthcare but pharma as well, and organizations should take steps now to prepare for it. The impacts on pharma can be significant for companies performing clinical trials. Leaders need to pay attention to how hospitals are reacting to the shortage and take steps now to avoid struggles down the road.


  1. Bersin, J. The Healthcare Industry Has a Talent Crisis: We Found the Cure. The Josh Bersin Company. September 14, 2022. https://joshbersin.com/2022/09/the-healthcare-industry-has-a-talent-crisis-we-found-the-cure/
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