NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Nurse Shortage Tied to Patient Deaths

May 30, 2002

In hospitals with low numbers of registered nurses, patients are more likely to suffer complications like urinary infections and pneumonia, to stay in the hospital longer, and to die from treatable conditions like shock or gastrointestinal bleeding, according to a new report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

  • The report found that in hospitals with higher nurse staffing, stays were 3 to 5 percent shorter, and complication rates 2 to 9 percent lower than in hospitals with lower nurse staffing.
  • Currently 126,000 nursing positions are unfilled -- equal to 12 percent of capacity.
  • The average nurse salary, $46,000 a year, has not increased much in the last decade, experts say.
  • The lead author of the study explained that registered nurses are "the eyes and ears of the hospital" for judging whether a patient is recovering normally -- and they are able to spot signs early on when things are not progressing as they should.

Registered nurses differ from other nurse categories in that they receive several years of training and usually hold associate's or bachelor's degrees. Practical nurses usually hold high school diplomas and a year of training. Aides have less training.

Source: Denise Grady, "Number of Nurses Affects Many Illnesses, Study Finds," New York Times, May 30, 2002; Jack Needleman et al., "Nurse-Staffing Levels and the Quality of Care in Hospitals," May 30, 2002, New England Journal of Medicine.


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