Nurse Staffing Levels Are a Life and Death Issue

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A new study on mortality rates in hospitals confirms what we already know—that having the right number of nurses is a matter of life and death, AFT president Randi Weingarten says. "When too few nurses are on duty, care suffers and more patients die."

The study, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program, analyzed 166,920 patients at 39 hospitals in Michigan from 2003 to 2006. It found that low nursing staff levels can increase patients' risk of dying in the hospital. In addition to nurse staffing, the analysis looked at three other factors: hospital occupancy, weekend admission and seasonal influenza activity. All four factors had a statistically significant impact on in-hospital mortality.

"For years, AFT Healthcare members have said the No. 1 issue for nursing is inadequate staffing, which effectively prohibits nurses from performing their jobs," Weingarten says. "A 2003 study conducted by Peter D. Hart Research for AFT Healthcare showed that 82 percent of all hospital nurses favor legislation that would establish a maximum number of patients that nurses can be required to care for at one time. The AFT has long called for legislation establishing safe staffing levels.

"Results from this new study suggest that one nurse for every five patients is an optimal general staffing level. This is consistent with the findings of earlier studies and the experience of thousands of AFT members caring for patients across the nation.

"The battle for healthcare reform that is now nearing an end in Congress has rightly focused on the cost of care and access to insurance coverage. This new study is a reminder that we must not lose sight of the urgent need to fix problems in the nation's healthcare system that undermine the quality of care, including the failure to invest in the right nurse-patient staffing ratio." [AFT press release]

March 15, 2010