Pennsylvania Study Highlights Nurse Fatigue and Infection Risk

A recent study out of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing casts light on a serious problem in American healthcare. Thousands of nurses studied showed high levels of burnout or fatigue, which can lead to otherwise preventable medical errors with potentially life-threatening consequences.

The study’s researchers surveyed more than 7,000 registered nurses in 161 Pennsylvania hospitals. They combined that data with information about those facilities’ rates of hospital-acquired infections from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, a state agency that collects data with the goal of addressing escalating health care costs. The study’s authors also looked at national data on hospital characteristics.

The survey used a scale called the Malach Burnout Inventory, a widely-recognized system of measuring burnout. The scale considers factors like emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and whether nurses felt a series of personal accomplishment in their work.

More than one-third of the nurses surveyed reported high levels of burnout on the Malach scale. These results come as no surprise to nurses and other health care professionals, who see the effects of nurse fatigue every day.

“This study does confirm what most of us have been saying within nursing,” said the director of nursing practice and policy at the American Nurses Association to NBC News. “There is a direct link between staffing, the number of nurses providing patient care, and patient outcomes. What we would add is the work environment … that can have an impact on burnout.”

Bad news for nurses – and patients

Of course, nurses want to develop careers that leave them fulfilled, rested and healthy. But if that isn’t reason enough for hospitals to take measures to decrease burn-out, they needn’t look farther than the toll that nurse fatigue can have on patients. Tired, overworked nurses are more likely to make medical errors and, in a hospital setting, that can be the difference between life and death.

A 2012 study found that by requiring a patient-to-nurse ratio of 5-to-1 in surgical units in Pennsylvania would slash patient deaths by 14 percent. Having a lower patient-to-nurse ratio means that nurses not only have more time to spend caring for each patient, but also that they are less likely to make mistakes caused by fatigue and overload.

Hospital-acquired infections are one major risk of burned-out nurses. Routine safeguards like washing hands before inserting a catheter or sanitizing equipment that touches a patient can help prevent infections in hospital patients. But when a nurse is running from one patient’s room to the next with no respite, these routine tasks are sometimes the first to suffer.

When some hospitals reduced their proportion of burned-out nurses from 30 percent to 10 percent, they eliminated 4,160 infections and saved $41 million in hospital costs a year.

If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a medical professional’s error or negligence, consider speaking with a personal injury attorney experienced in medical malpractice matters. They may help you investigate your claim and pursue any appropriate claims for damages.