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Massachusetts Physicians Say Nurse Understaffing Harms Patient Safety, Undermines Quality Care

Massachusetts Physicians Say Nurse Understaffing Harms Patient Safety, Undermines Quality Care

78% of MDs believe RN staffing levels are too low, 82% believe quality is suffering, an alarming 1-in-5 doctors report patient deaths due to nurses caring for too many patients

MDs Overwhelmingly Support Minimum RN-to-Patient Ratio Bill as Solution

BOSTON, MA — A study of physicians in Massachusetts released today indicates poor RN-to-patient ratios in hospitals are resulting in significant harm and even death for patients. According to the survey, physicians rank understaffing of registered nurses as the biggest problem in Massachusetts hospitals directly affecting patient care. Fully 78% of physicians report staffing levels in hospitals are too low with devastating results for their patients:

  • Alarmingly, 1-in-5 physicians (19%) report patient deaths directly attributable to nurses having too many patients to care for
  • 82% agree the quality of patient care in hospitals is suffering due to understaffing
  • 61% report medication errors, such as improper medication or dosages due to understaffing
  • 54% report complications or problems for patients due to understaffing
  • 43% report poor staffing leads to longer stays for patients
  • 37% report injury or harm to patients due to understaffing

As a solution to the problem, 74% of physicians surveyed support legislation to set minimum RN-to-patient ratios. A similar number also say the proposal would improve the quality of care for their patients, and more than 60% believe the measure would save money by reducing nurse turnover and the cost of treating preventable complications.

"Physicians believe that patient safety is being compromised as a result of understaffing of RNs, echoing what we have heard from nurses and patients in recent surveys," said John Gorman, President of Opinion Dynamics Corporation, the Cambridge-based polling firm.

Two weeks ago, ODC released a survey of recent patients in Massachusetts hospitals, which found that 1-in-4 patients say their safety was compromised during recent hospitalizations. An ODC survey of registered nurses in 2003 found that two-thirds reported increases in medical errors, complications and injuries to patients with 1-in-3 RNs reporting patient deaths as a result of too many patients assigned to their care.

"I don’t know how many times we need to share information like this before the message sinks in with the Legislature: patients are suffering because of RN understaffing, and the solution agreed upon by all those who know this issue best—nurses, physicians and the patients themselves—is to pass a law to establish a safe, minimum standard of nursing care. The time for debate is over, the time for action has arrived," said Julie Pinkham, RN, MNA executive director, who was among the advocates on hand at the State House today to announce the results, along with physicians and legislators who are taking immediate action on the issue.

State Representative Robert Coughlin (D-Dedham) attended the event and announced his intention to file an amendment to the Fiscal 2006 Budget implementing the provisions of H. 2663, An Act Ensuring Patient Safety.

The bill, which has 106 co-sponsors, sets minimum standards for patient-to-nurse ratios that would be adjusted to reflect the types of hospital units and the severity of patient conditions. The measure is designed to put an end to the major disparities in care levels that now exist among the state’s hospitals.

The telephone survey of 150 Massachusetts physicians who care for patients in hospitals was conducted between Feb. 24 and March 8, 2005. It was commissioned by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, one of the leaders of the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients. The Coalition is an alliance of 91 health and consumer groups that support H. 2663, and includes a number of physicians, as well as the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Medical Students Association and the Massachusetts Committee of Interns and Residents.