An unconventional journey: the unfolding of Peter Buerhaus’ career

Peter Buerhaus of MSU’s College of Nursing detailed his “unconventional journey” before an audience of students, reporters and fellow nurses alike on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Buerhaus’ lecture consisted of the six main “stops” along his career which led to him being a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University before taking on the same role at Montana State, in addition to having served as an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

The first stop of Buerhaus’ commendable career began with acknowledging a pressing problem in the nursing community: the generation of nurses that provided healthcare to the baby-boom generation were going to retire, taking away one million registered nurses from the healthcare workforce, with a shortage of 500,000 left in the country by the year 2020. Only a week after conducting studies and having them published in prestigious medical journals, Buerhaus quickly progressed to stop two, when he participated in 75 media interviews, allowing him and his work to gain worldwide exposure.

Stop three in Buerhaus’ work consisted of providing sufficient evidence that suggested a positive correlation between the amount of nurse staffing and the quality of care given at hospitals. His study, which was one of the top twenty studies funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, showed that higher nurse staffing in hospitals drastically lowered the risk of negative discharge outcomes in the patients of those hospitals. The study led to him being featured on “60 Minutes.”

Buerhaus’ fourth and fifth stops in his career were helping with Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future and the founding of the National Healthcare Workforce Commission (NHWC) in 2010, respectively. The NHWC’s job was to advise Congress and the Administration on issues concerning the national nursing workforce, focusing specifically on aging healthcare workers, rural healthcare, dental and mental health care services, and to decrease the overall cost of American health care. Finally, the sixth stop Buerhaus mentioned is the current work of the NHWC. The NHWC is concerning itself with helping physicians and nurses themselves, with focus on things like allowing physicians to practice in the location of their choice.

Predicting a global shortage of goods or services due to population growth is no new concept, however. Due to his world-impacting work, Buerhaus has been compared to Thomas Malthus, a famous English cleric of the 1700s. Malthus predicted that, due to the rapidly growing population and marginally improving standards of living of that time, that there would be a food shortage that would eventually cause the living standard to drop back downward. Buerhaus was compared to Malthus because of how his healthcare predictions mirrored those of the old cleric: the rapid decline in healthcare quality with the decrease in nurses.

“Nurses are present at birth, throughout life and during one’s passing. The opportunity to contribute to one’s health and their potential as a human being throughout their lifetime appeals to me. Nurses can create enormously positive ripple effects,” Buerhaus said.