From our commentary author Sarah DiGregorio, whose latest book is “Taking Care: The Story of Nursing and Its Power to Change Our World”:
If I say “nurse,” what do you think?
Maybe it’s a nurse who cares for you, or nurses who go to work during a pandemic.
Or perhaps in the mind that springs countless dire headlines: nursing shortages, nurses’ resignations, nurses’ strikes. It can all blur into a nebulous mishmash of bad news. After all, many of us already know that the health care system is not working well for us. So, when we non-nurses hear about nurses striking for better staffing, it can sound like just another complicated, inside-baseball, health care dispute.
But it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Nurses strike because they know what the public doesn’t: Your survival may depend on whether your nurse has time to care for you. Nurse to patient ratio can be a matter of life or death.
Decades of research have shown this strong correlation: the higher the level of nurse staffing, the more likely you are to get out alive, or have a better outcome. The ratios sound bureaucratic, but they tell a real story: if you’re admitted to a hospital, your nurse might be assigned four patients, or they might be assigned, for example, eight patients. This is not unusual. What that ratio means for you, though, is that you may or may not get the care you need, because a nurse can’t be in eight different places at once.
Nurses often notice early signs of stroke, liver failure, and the need for more intensive respiratory support. Without a nurse to spot and address these complications, sometimes patients die avoidable deaths.
This is such a real risk that nursing has a word for it: failure to rescue.
Hospitals often claim that labor costs are too high, and this is one reason nurses are asked to work understaffed. However, hospital administrator salaries have continued to rise in recent years. Just for example, the CEO of Hospital Corporation of America earned more than $14 million in 2022. In contrast to the correlation between nurse staffing and patient outcomes, the researchers found no correlation between hospital CEO pay and patient mortality or value to the community.
This leads to a question: What is the purpose of a hospital? And will its budget reflect its objectives?
The purpose of nursing is to maximize human health and well-being. So, we need to make sure nurses have working conditions that make it possible for all of us to get the care we deserve.
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The story is produced by Lucy Kirk and Amal Mathre. Editor: Emmanuel Seki.