Study Reinforces Need for Legislation on Safe Staffing

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A new University of Pennsylvania study finds that 486 lives could have been saved in 2006 in New Jersey and Pennsylvania if those states had had the same nurse-to-patient ratios required by California law—reinforcing the pressing need for national safe staffing legislation.

"Preventable hospital deaths due to unsafe staffing levels are inexcusable. If we know that a smaller patient load for nurses saves lives, we should expect nothing less for patients and their families," says AFT president Randi Weingarten. (The AFT represents more than 70,000 nurses and other health professionals.) "We should build upon the new healthcare reform law and fix this well-documented problem, once and for all, with legislation that establishes safe staffing levels for all hospitals."

The study's lead author, Linda Aiken, says improved nurse staffing nationally could save "many thousands" of lives per year. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, like most states, have no mandated staffing levels. California law, however, requires a staffing ratio in medical-surgical units of at least one nurse for every five patients. The University of Pennsylvania study found that there would have been at least 13.9 percent fewer surgical deaths in New Jersey, and 10.6 percent fewer surgical deaths in Pennsylvania, if those states had had the same standards as California.

Appropriate staffing levels are critical to maintaining the nurse workforce. Previous studies have found that nurses are at greater risk of occupational injury or burnout when they have an overload of patients. The study also found that California's staffing ratios helped with nurse recruitment and retention.

The study, titled "Implications of the California Nurse Staffing Mandate for Other States," is available online. Fact sheets, policy statements and previous research on safe staffing levels are available on the AFT's website. [AFT press release]

April 20, 2010