Shortage of nurses may cause thousands of preventable deaths

A new study involving the University of Southampton has shown that a shortage in nurses on hospital wards may be leading to thousands of deaths from treatable illnesses, such as blood clots and pneumonia each year.

The paper on ‘failure to rescue’, (death among surgical patients with potentially treatable complications) published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, considered 70 million patients who had undergone surgery between 1997 and 2009. It revealed that 28,000 people died with potentially treatable complications each year with patients eight per cent more likely to die in hospitals with fewer nurses and nine per cent more likely to die in hospitals with fewer doctors.

Professor Peter Griffiths, Chair of Health Services Research at the University of Southampton, who led the study says: “It is clear from our research that having more nurses on wards is associated with lower rates of ‘failure to rescue’, but having a higher proportion of doctors compared to nurses in the workforce seems to be even more important.

“The ratio of support staff to nurses also shows a negative effect. The more support staff, or untrained nurses, compared to fully-qualified registered nurses, the higher the rates of ‘failure to rescue’ on the wards. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that a lack of appropriate care is a contributing factor to many deaths from treatable complications on hospital wards.”

The study, in collaboration with Imperial College London and funded by the Department of Health’s Policy Research programme, also demonstrated a link between ‘failure to rescue’ and age. Professor Griffiths says: “The relationship between ‘failure to rescue’ and age is another interesting finding from this research. These potentially preventable deaths increase sharply with age, which, whilst expected to an extent, is still unexplained at these high levels. If we consider comparable research in the United States, we don’t see such high rates associated with age.”

Professor Peter Griffiths

Professor Peter Griffiths

"It is therefore reasonable to conclude that a lack of appropriate care is a contributing factor to many deaths from treatable complications on hospital wards.”

Professor Peter Griffiths, Chair of Health Services Research