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Nursing Burnout Affects Patient Safety

In a struggling economy, hospitals and nursing homes have sought to reduce costs in response to increasing financial pressures. Nurses argue that some cost-reducing staffing decisions affect patient care and harm nurses' ability to adequately monitor patients.

In response to concerns over patient care, California enacted a widely debated law setting minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that if such a ratio were applied in New Jersey, it could prevent 222 New Jersey surgical deaths annually.

University of Pennsylvania researchers recently set out to find why fewer nurses resulted in poorer care. Burnout was the answer.

The study's lead author, Jeannie Cimiotti, explained, "Stress builds up and builds up and builds up until the giver of care just detaches and all of a sudden they are doing work, but they are not even cognizant of what they are doing, they are so stressed."

What Are the Consequences of Understaffing Nurses?

In analyzing 2006 data, the Penn researchers discovered that more catheter-related urinary tract and surgical site infections were reported when a nurse's average patient load increased by one additional patient from the average of 5.7 patients.

The percentage of burned-out nurses at a hospital also affected infection rates. A 10 percent increase in burned-out nurses translated to an increase in surgical site infections, from 4.2 per 1,000 patients to more than six.

The Penn study draws attention to the importance of adequate staffing in hospitals and nursing homes. While the study looked at hospital data, the results also are also relevant in the nursing home setting.

New Jersey is currently considering a minimum staffing ratio similar to the California law, but the pending legislation has not yet passed.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Penn study examines link between nurse burnout, care," Don Sapatkin, July 30, 2012

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