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Study links hospital errors to understaffing

When Oregon patients check in to a hospital, their thoughts may be preoccupied with the main surgical or medical procedure they will be receiving. However, the opportunity for medical error is not confined to that event.

A recent university study suggests that lower nurse-to-patient ratios may prevent a substantial number of medical errors. The university research team attributes their findings not only to numbers, but also to the poorer work environment — and related issues like burnout — created by understaffing.

The researchers examined infection data from 161 acute-care hospitals and linked that data to 2 surveys. The first survey measured staffing information that hospitals supply to their national association; the second quantified nurse stress levels based on questionnaire responses from 7,076 registered nurses in direct patient care at those hospitals.

The study found that each nurse cared for an average of 5.7 patients and that the average catheter-related urinary tract infection rate was 8.6 patients for every 1,000 patients statewide. However, if just 1 patient were to be added to a nurse’s workload, the study found that the infection rate increased by nearly 1 infection per 1,000. The study also determined that surgical site infections went up at a similar rate.

According to one of the study’s authors, inadequate staffing hinders the formation of teamwork and support, which in turn places additional stress on individual hospital staff workers. When stress levels caused by overly high patient loads reach unsafe levels, hospital workers may simply detach from the burnout, becoming unaware of the work they are performing. The study is believed to be among the first of its kind.

From the moment a patient checks in with a nurse until the time of his or her discharge, hospital staff must provide a professional level of care. That standard applies when a nurse takes your medical history, administers you medication, and monitors you before and after your procedure. If the standard is breached due to error — regardless of whether it was caused by negligence or stress-induced mistakes related to understaffing — you may be able to bring a claim for medical malpractice against the hospital and its staff.

Source:, “Penn study examines link between nurse burnout, care,” Don Sapatkin, July 30, 2012

• Our firm handles situations similar to the one discussed in this post. If you would like to learn more about our practice, please visit our Oregon Nurse & Medication Error page.