SEVERAL emergency-room nurses were crying in frustration after their shift ended at a large metropolitan hospital when Molly, who was new to the hospital, walked in. The nurses were scared because their department was so understaffed that they believed their patients — and their nursing licenses — were in danger, and because they knew that when tensions ran high and nurses were spread thin, patients could snap and turn violent.
The nurses were regularly assigned seven to nine patients at a time, when the safe maximum is generally considered four (and just two for patients bound for the intensive-care unit). Molly — whom I followed for a year for a book about nursing, on the condition that I use a pseudonym for her — was assigned 20 patients with non-life-threatening conditions.
“The nurse-patient ratio is insane, the hallways are full of patients, most patients aren’t seen by the attending until they’re ready to leave, and the policies are really unsafe,” Molly told the group.
That’s just how the hospital does things, one nurse said, resigned.
Unfortunately, that’s how many hospitals operate. Inadequate staffing is a nationwide problem, and with the exception of California, not a single state sets a minimum standard for hospital-wide nurse-to-patient ratios.
Dozens of studies have found that the more patients assigned to a nurse, the higher the patients’ risk of death, infections, complications, falls, failure-to-rescue rates and readmission to the hospital — and the longer their hospital stay. According to one study, for every 100 surgical patients who die in hospitals where nurses are assigned four patients, 131 would die if they were assigned eight.
In pediatrics, adding even one extra surgical patient to a nurse’s ratio increases a child’s likelihood of readmission to the hospital by nearly 50 percent. The Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research found that if every hospital improved its nurses’ working conditions to the levels of the top quarter of hospitals, more than 40,000 lives would be saved nationwide every year.
Nurses are well aware of the problem. In a survey of nurses in Massachusetts released this month, 25 percent said that understaffing was directly responsible for patient deaths, 50 percent blamed understaffing for harm or injury to patients and 85 percent said that patient care is suffering because of the high numbers of patients assigned to each nurse. (The Massachusetts Nurses Association, a labor union, sponsored the study; it was conducted by an independent research firm and the majority of respondents were not members of the association.)
And yet too often, nurses are punished for speaking out. According to the New York State Nurses Association, this month Jack D. Weiler Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York threatened nurses with arrest, and even escorted seven nurses out of the building, because, during a breakfast to celebrate National Nurses Week, the nurses discussed staffing shortages. (A spokesman for the hospital disputed this characterization of the events.)
It’s not unusual for hospitals to intimidate nurses who speak up about understaffing, said Deborah Burger, co-president of National Nurses United, a union. “It happens all the time, and nurses are harassed into taking what they know are not safe assignments,” she said. “The pressure has gotten even greater to keep your mouth shut. Nurses have gotten blackballed for speaking up.”
The landscape hasn’t always been so alarming. But as the push for hospital profits has increased, important matters like personnel count, most notably nurses, have suffered. “The biggest change in the last five to 10 years is the unrelenting emphasis on boosting their profit margins at the expense of patient safety,” said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “Absolutely every decision is made on the basis of cost savings.”
Experts said that many hospital administrators assume the studies don’t apply to them and fault individuals, not the system, for negative outcomes. “They mistakenly believe their staffing is adequate,” said Judy Smetzer, the vice president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a consumer group. “It’s a vicious cycle. When they’re understaffed, nurses are required to cut corners to get the work done the best they can. Then when there’s a bad outcome, hospitals fire the nurse for cutting corners.”
Nursing advocates continue to push for change. In April, National Nurses United filed a grievance against the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, which it said is 100 registered nurses short of the minimum staffing levels mandated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (the hospital said it intends to hire more nurses, but disputes the union’s reading of the mandate).
Nurses are the key to improving American health care; research has proved repeatedly that nurse staffing is directly tied to patient outcomes. Nurses are unsung and underestimated heroes who are needlessly overstretched and overdue for the kind of recognition befitting champions. For their sake and ours, we must insist that hospitals treat them right.