Study: Patients more likely to die in hospitals when cared for by nurses with heavy workloads

Published on February 26, 2014 at 8:21 AM · No Comments

Patients are more likely to die after common surgical procedures when they are cared for in hospitals with heavier nurse workloads and fewer nurses with bachelor's degrees, concludes the largest investigation of nursing and hospital outcomes in Europe to date, published in The Lancet.

The study findings, derived from more than 420000 patients in 300 hospitals across nine European countries, indicate that every extra patient added to a nurse’s average workload increases the chance of surgical patients dying within 30 days of admission by 7%, but a 10% increase in the proportion of nurses holding a bachelor degree is associated with a 7% decrease in the risk of death.

“Our findings emphasise the risk to patients that could emerge in response to nurse staffing cuts under recent austerity measures, and suggest that an increased emphasis on bachelor’s education for nurses could reduce hospital deaths”, says Professor Linda Aiken from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, USA, who led the research.

To assess whether differences in patient-to-nurse workloads and nurses’ educational qualifications affect patients’ survival after surgery, the researchers analysed responses from more than 26500 nurses, and reviewed medical records for 422730 patients aged 50 years or older discharged after common surgery such as hip or knee replacement, appendectomy, gall bladder surgery, and vascular procedures in nine European countries (Belgium, England, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland).

The analysis examined the association of nursing workload and education with patient outcomes, after taking into account each individual patient’s risk of death including age, sex, type of surgical procedure, type of admission, and the presence of chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, as well as hospital characteristics including bed size, teaching status, and technology availability.

The overall percentage of patients who died in hospital within 30 days of admission was low, ranging by country within an average of 1·0―1·5%. However, in every country, death rates varied significantly across individual hospitals, ranging from hospitals where less than 1% of patients died, to hospitals where more than 7% died.

Nurse staffing (workload) and education levels varied widely both between countries and between hospitals within each country. The average patient-to-nurse ratios varied from 12·7 in Spain and 10·8 in Belgium to 6·9 in Ireland and 5·2 in Norway. In Spain and Norway, all nurses had a bachelor’s degree compared with an average of just 10% in Switzerland and 28% in England.

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