How many patients can a nurse reasonably care for at one time? This is perhaps the biggest issue facing the nursing profession right now. In fact, there are two bills in Congress right now that seek to decide just this, not only to protect patients but also the nurses who care for them.

California is the only state in the United States that regulates the number of patients a nurse can have under his or her care. The safe staffing law was passed there in 1999 (more than 15 years ago!) and it went into effect in 2004. The law breaks down the maximum number of patients for a nurse by acuity and type of care.

But in 49 other states and in the District of Columbia, there is no mandated limit to the number of patients a nurse can safely or reasonably be expected to care for.

What does this mean? This means on busy days in an emergency department, nurses may be caring for 4-6 acutely ill patients, some of whom need to be transferred to the intensive care unit, to a telemetry unit, or to the OR. This means a psychiatric nurse could be expected to care for more than 10 patients at a time, or that on a low-staffed unit at night, a med-surg nurse may be caring for up to eight or more patients.

A nurse’s name on a patient’s chart confers ultimate responsibility for that patient’s safety and well-being. The expectation is that the nurse will prevent a patient from harm and will keep a patient safe. It is the nurse who will discover a medication error before it gets to the patient (whether it be an error on the part of a resident or the doctor or the pharmacist); she or he will keep a patient from falling should they try to get up out of bed unassisted, and he or she will medicate, assess, chart, document, comfort, and care. But what happens when that nurse is stretched so thin there is no possible way for her to ensure a patient’s safety? The patient is at risk, and so is the nurse’s license. How can she be everywhere at once when she is caring for five or even six patients at a time?

Unfortunately, this is an issue that is unlikely to be resolved in the near future, despite the two bills currently before Congress. Over the next decade, the number of aging baby-boomers continues to increase while the number of new nurses entering the workforce decreases (not to mention those nurses leaving the profession altogether as a result of burnout and fatigue). Administrators still incorrectly fear the cost ramifications of nursing mandates. Specifically, the bill would require hospitals to write a staffing plan, and “allows a nurse to object to, or refuse to participate in, any assignment if it would violate minimum ratios or if the nurse is not prepared by education or experience to fulfill the assignment without compromising the safety of a patient or jeopardizing the nurse’s license.” Importantly, the bill also carries an anti-retaliation clause. The bills are a start, but are not a panacea by any means. And, they have yet to pass.

Earlier this week, a report released by Johns Hopkins purports that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States each year. The high number of deaths relating to errors point not to bad doctors or to mistakes, but more to systemic problems, a lack of standardization, a lack of reporting and data collection about mistakes, and issues with medical staff turnover, burnout, and fatigue. Many people are quick to point out the myriad studies correlating positive patient outcomes and higher levels of nurse staffing, as well as the decrease patient lengths-of-stay.

It’s not that data don’t exist, as hundreds of studies demonstrate the positive relationship between patient safety and nurse staffing. Moreover, studies also show that increasing nursing staff does not contribute to higher hospital costs. A longitudinal study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality concluded that it actually decreased costs over time, including a decreased patient length-of-stay. Additionally, increased nurse staffing has been shown to decrease patient mortality, increase patient satisfaction, and decrease nursing turnover and job dissatisfaction.

Safe staffing is an issue that is not likely to fade, and many nurses are eagerly tracking the legislation before Congress. A rally to demonstrate support of safe staffing is planned in Washington, DC, for May 12th. More information can be found here.

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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