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Nurse staffing influences hospital safety

Nurses play a vital role in healthcare and patient safety. One of a nurse's primary roles is to monitor the condition of patients and watch for medical problems. When it comes to staffing nurses, it is not just the quality of nurses that matters. The quantity of nurse staffing matters as well.

Nurses help prevent medical malpractice and injuries to patients. However, many hospitals do not adequately staff nurses. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found a definite link between nurse staffing and patient mortality.

Over the past decades, various studies have found that low staffing levels for nurses have had an adverse effect on patient outcomes. However, the healthcare industry has rejected these studies, claiming errors with the methods used by researchers.

To overcome the objections to previous studies, the researchers controlled the data for variations in patient care. For this study, researchers looked at 198,000 patient admissions and about 177,000 eight-hour nursing shifts at 43 patient units at one hospital. The hospital was selected because it had generally high staffing levels and had high quality personnel staffing its various units.

Patient units were considered properly staffed if nurse staffing was within eight work-hours of target levels. The researchers found that the risk of patient death increased by 2 percent for each shift that was understaffed. When a patient stayed in the hospital for three understaffed shifts, the risk of patient mortality increased 6 percent. The study also found that when nurses had to work harder because of high patient turnover, the risk of patient mortality increased 4 percent.

Sources: BusinessWeek, "When Nurse Staffing Drops, Mortality Rates Rise: Study," Amanda Gardner, 3/16/2011

Scientific American, "Fewer Nurses Means Higher Patient Death Risk," Steve Mirsky, 3/18/2011

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