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How the Nursing Shortage Puts Patient Safety at Risk

Published March 7, 2023
Burnt out nurse sitting on the floor

The shortage of nurses has been an ongoing issue since before the pandemic, but the current severity has brought the crisis to the forefront. With the demand for skilled nursing professionals far outweighing the available supply, healthcare institutions are left scrambling to fill essential positions.

As a consequence, nurses find themselves caught in a relentless cycle of overwork and burnout, compromising their ability to provide quality care and putting patient safety at risk.

What's causing the nurse shortage? 

Increased Demand for Care

The demand for healthcare services has reached unprecedented levels primarily driven by the intersection of an aging population and a surge in chronic diseases necessitating more intensive care. The challenges posed by this surge are particularly pronounced, considering the current demographic landscape of the United States, which boasts a historic high in the number of individuals aged 65 and above. 

Aging Nurse Population

A significant portion of registered nurses and nurse faculty are also approaching retirement age. Less number of nurses working also means limited resources to train new ones. The scarcity of educational resources could cap enrollment numbers or decrease nursing education quality. 

Decreased Interest in the Profession

According to AACN, nurses are leaving the profession than entering it at a rate of 15% per year. With less staff, nurses must work longer hours and take on more responsibilities – leading to increased stress and fatigue.

Data reveals that almost 900,000, or almost one-fifth of total registered nurses, intend to leave the workforce by 2027.

As a solution, hospitals have started offering incentives such as bonuses and increased pay for travel nurses to address these issues. However, this has been shown to be a bad deal for health systems and nurses. 

How the Nurse staffing shortage puts patients at risk

Increased Nurse-to-Patient Ratio 

Safe nurse-to-patient ratios are critical for both patient care and nurse retention. Despite the adverse risks, nurses across the nation must care for more patients than recommended because of the staffing shortage. 

The quality of care provided to a patient decreases as the number of hospital patients assigned to a nurse increases. Each additional patient a nurse is given increases the likelihood of that patient dying within 30 days of admission by 7%. Additionally, patient satisfaction suffers when a facility lacks the appropriate staffing levels. 

With more patients to care for, nurses are likely to miss their breaks, work overtime, and experience burnout. Nurses who feel burnout have more difficulty providing quality patient care and report work dissatisfaction. 

A Nursing Outlook study showed that just one more patient per nurse was associated with a 23% increase in job dissatisfaction.  

Less staffing can result in higher costs for hospitals in general. Decreased quality of patient care results in extended hospital stays and increased medical costs, negatively impacting the facility's perception.  

Quality of Care 

Several studies have indicated the correlation between inadequate staffing and decreased quality of patient care. With less staff support, nurses must spread their time across more patients, leading to: 

  • Less time to monitor patients: increased patient falls and accidents
  • Rushed or incomplete nursing care: bathing, mouth care, feeding, and toileting
  • Medication errors: delayed or missed doses of medication

Improper patient care can lead to increased length of stay, infection, patient dissatisfaction, readmission, and even more alarming – increased mortality rates.  

Overworked Nurses 

Nurses have reported feeling overworked since before the pandemic, and because the shortage has no end, many are considering leaving the profession.  As nurses take on more patients, they take fewer breaks, miss meals, and strain to get through shifts. Fatigue associated with overworked nurses can put quality of care at risk: 

National Library of Medicine stats

Longer Wait Times  

According to ECRI, Americans face longer wait times – even during life-threatening emergencies. Without the adequate staff to support a healthcare facility, emergency rooms become overcrowded – leading to increased hospitalization, procedures performed, permanent disability, or even death. 

Fewer Hospital Visits 

Patient dissatisfaction, longer wait times, and poor experiences compel individuals to delay or forego regular check-ups and treatments. Fewer visits can lead to more illnesses, further driving the need for healthcare services.

For some healthcare facilities, staffing levels have reached a critical point, pushing them to the brink of closure. This, in turn, forces patients to travel greater distances in search of medical attention.

Strikes: A Last Resort

Frustrated by unsustainable working conditions and their inability to provide the level of care they aspire to deliver, nurses across the globe are increasingly turning to strikes as a means of drawing attention to their plight. These strikes are not mere bargaining tools; they are desperate calls for change, resonating with the broader issues of workplace dissatisfaction, burnout, and the erosion of patient care standards.

Nurse strikes highlight the urgency of addressing the systemic issues contributing to the shortage. Nurses, in solidarity, demand better staffing ratios, improved working conditions, and fair compensation. As they take to the picket lines, their message is clear: the status quo is no longer tenable, and patient safety is hanging in the balance.


How an RPO Partner can help 

A recruitment process outsourcing partner can help health systems implement workforce planning strategies to overcome the shortage. A few ways that RPOs can help attract and retain qualified nurses are by: 

  • Establishing employee float pools
  • Implementing retention strategies
  • Building an inclusive and diverse workforce
  • Scaling resources as needed 

The current workforce shortage is projected to linger for years to come. An RPO partner can be your organization's tool to ensure patients receive the care they deserve.

  • Topics: 
  • Healthcare