Originally appeared in PSQH.
Examining the link between the workload of nurses and patient outcomes, a new study published in BMJ Open found that when nurses are overworked, the risk of a patient safety incident increased by 30% and of patient death jumped by 40%.
The researchers looked at 36 units in four hospitals in Finland, collecting data daily on nurse workload, staffing, patient safety incidents, and patient mortality for a year. When the workload was above the optimal level, the study found the risk of a patient safety incident grew by 8% to 32%, while the risk of patient mortality increased by 43%.
Conversely, if a nurse’s workload fell below that level, the risk of a patient safety incident or death dropped by between 15% and 27%. This would give nurses “more time for caring and observing each patient, which may reduce the risk for adverse events and accordingly prevent the patient’s health condition from deteriorating,” according to the study.
The researchers noted that the reliability of incident reports can be questioned. The study didn’t “address the effects of skill mix, competence level or work experience on patient outcomes,” they wrote. “Physicians’ patient-related direct time and healthcare support should also probably be included in further studies.”
Another factor is the lack of nursing staff resources in organizations. “The study provided some new evidence to suggest that the traditional nurse staffing method, the patient-to-nurse ratio, is not necessarily preferable when it comes to controlling for patients’ severity and casemix.”