As the world demands more of modern medicine, nurses of all specialties become the loci of our experience in the health care system, from Middle Eastern battlefields to the local doctor's office.

On Monday, the American Nursing Association is bringing attention to the field, as well as some of the challenges ahead, with the beginning of the annual "Nurses Week," which culminates May 12 on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

Still dominated by women (but with, for example, one third of all U.S. Army nurses now male), the profession runs the gamut from licensed practical nurses, with one year of training, to those with either of two terminal degrees, the doctor of nursing practice — or the Ph.D. in nursing for researchers.

Coming Nursing Shortage

Experts warned more than 10 years ago of a coming crisis in nursing, whereby America experiences both a rising demand for nurses by an aging population and a shortage as many retire, replaced by too few nurses as schools scramble to fill faculty positions.

"We have an aging nursing work force and our nursing faculty is even older," Carole Stacy, director of the Michigan Center for Nursing, told media. "What I am hearing now with the economy getting better, is that nurses who put off retiring are saying they are going to retire. In about two years, we are going to see shortages."

A 2010 survey by the Center for Nursing found that more than a third of registered nurses were age 55 or older, with 43 percent of licensed practical nurses as old. And as the nursing force ages, nursing schools continue to spurn qualified students from four-year and graduate nursing programs for lack of faculty, clinical and classroom space, and money.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing said schools rejected 75,000 qualified applicants from such programs in 2011 for those reasons, just as the shortage hits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the American labor force would require some 3.45 million nurses in 2020, up from 2.74 million in 2010 - correlating to a jump in elderly from 40 million to 55 million during that time.

Though the elderly composed 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2008, people 65 and older accounted for more than a third of hospital discharges.

Debra Nault, director of nursing practice for the Michigan Nurses Association, says the problem in nursing education — and within the profession, with regard to some specialties — may be attributed to financial incentives. At a hospital in Michigan, one of the most affected states, an experienced clinical nurse may earn $80,000 per year, whereas a baccalaureate faculty position, typically requiring a master's degree, would pay a quarter less.

"Pay is really the big issue," Nault said. "The pay is not really what you can earn in a hospital."

The American Journal of Medical Quality last January predicted the shortage of registered nurses to be most acute in the South and West of the United States, with the country continuing to drain the supply of nurses, in turn, from developing nations offering lower salaries.

Nursing Inspiration

As America commemorates the profession that began in modern times with Nightingale's mid-19th century service in the Crimean War, the American Nurses Association implored others to "honor those who work hard, often with few resources and little rest, to help us maintain our health."

The American Nursing Association encourages people to speak with local government about the quality of health care in their communities, and for the civic-minded to hold special celebrations to recognize nurses in the community, writing editorial letters to local newspapers, too.

As part of the broader effort to inspire the next generation of nurses, this week released a free electronic book containing a collection of 30 stories, written by nurses about their experiences in the profession: "End of Shift: A Treasury of Real Stories by Real Nurses." The publication will be available throughout the week at as a free download in both e-reader and PDF formats.