Press Releases

2001 Releases

Nurse Staffing Levels Directly Impact Patient Health and Survival

For immediate release: April 23, 2001 

Boston MA – The size and mix of nurse staffing in US hospitals has a direct impact on the outcome of patient health. The finding comes from the most comprehensive study to date on the topic and was led by Jack Needleman of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and Peter Buerhaus of Vanderbilt University’s School of Nursing in Nashville, Tennessee. The study, "Nurse Staffing Levels and Patient Outcomes in Hospitals" is available at http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/dn/staffstudy.htm

Hospital discharge data for more than 5 million patients, financial reports and hospital staffing surveys from 799 hospitals in eleven states was analyzed to determine staffing levels of registered nurses (RN), licensed practicing/vocational nurses (LPN/LVN), and aides, and to measure the frequency of a wide range of complications that patients developed during their hospital stay. 

The researchers found consistent relationships between nurse staffing variables and five adverse patient outcomes, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, shock, upper gastrointestinal bleeding and length of hospital stay in medical and major surgery patients. They also found higher RN staffing was associated with a 3 to 12 percent reduction in certain adverse outcomes and higher staffing at all levels of nursing was associated with a 2 to 25 percent reduction in adverse outcomes

Mortality and complication rates analyzed in the study were higher in medical patient samples than in the surgical patient samples, 3.15 percent compared to 1.6 percent. However, the rate of death from one of the five severe complications was 18.6 percent for medical patients and 19.7 percent for major surgery patients.

"Patient outcomes like hospital-acquired pneumonia, shock and cardiac arrest, and gastrointestinal bleeding have a substantial risk of death associated with them, and hospital-acquired urinary tract infections are far too common," said Jack Needleman, assistant professor of economics and health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and project director for the study, "The goal should be to reduce them to zero, if possible. Our study underscores that nurse staffing is an important element in improving patient safety."

"The study findings show that nurse staffing matters considerably to the well-being of hospital patients," said Peter Buerhaus, co-project director for the study and senior associate Dean for research at Vanderbilt University’s School of Nursing. "Perhaps the study results will move health policy forward, making it possible to provide hospitals and nurses with the resources that will enrich staffing levels to the point where the adverse patient outcomes we found can be reduced."

The study was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Health Resources and Service Administration, Health Care Financing Administration, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health.

A government press release on the study with comments by HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, Sam Shekar. M.D., M.P.H., HRSA's associate administrator for health professions, and John M. Eisenberg, M.D., director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), can be found at: http://www.hrsa.gov/Newsroom/releases/2001Releases/nursestudy.htm


For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu

John Howser
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
(615) 322-4747