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Do lower nurse-to-patient staffing levels improve safety?

In recent posts, we've explored some technological approaches to improving patient safety and reducing the risk of medical mistakes and injuries. Some new proposals include digital diagnostic coding and a standardized inventory system for surgical tools.

To some patient safety advocates, a 2004 California law about nurse-to-patient staffing ratios was simply common sense. The law places limitations on the staffing workloads facing nurses in the state.

Several recent studies have attempted to measure the impact to patient safety with lower nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. The results were inconclusive.

However, the studies did yield another finding: The lower staffing ratios resulted in fewer occupational injuries and less illness among the state’s nurses. Perhaps the reduced staffing removed on-the-job stress levels, which, in turn, may have helped nurses stay healthier and work more safely. 

Yet isn’t it common sense to expect a higher level of patient care with smaller staffing ratios? Instead of being lost in a crowd, patients under this approach may receive more personalized service and attention.

Without a definitive finding, unfortunately, other states may not follow California’s example. In fact, California is the only state in the country with this type of law. However, an attorney that focuses on medical malpractice lawsuits might caution against a premature conclusion.

Although hospital administrators may have an eye to the financial bottom line, medical malpractice litigation can also be an effective way to get their attention. As most nurses are employees of the hospital, the institution may be found liable for their actions in the event of a finding of negligence.

Related posts: “Will digital diagnostic coding improve patient safety?” “Taking another look at surgical errors” 

Source: Infection Control Today, “Higher Nurse-to-Patient Standard Improves Staff Safety,” Sept. 30, 2014


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