As the nursing shortage strikes America, organizations across the country are trying to deal with the problems facing hospitals and medical facilities. The focus of much of their work has been on curbing unsafe practices and regulating nurse-to-patient ratios and providing whistleblower protection for nurses. A recent article by Patricia Eakin, president of the largest registered nurse (RN) union in Pennsylvania, urges people to remember that ?more nurses equals better care.?
The nursing shortage is a self-perpetuating problem. As more nurses retire or change profession and schools are unable to accept and teach enough nursing students to fill vacancies, the stress on our remaining RNs is compounded. They are expected to take on extra nursing duties and sometimes even non-nursing duties such as answering phones. This excess of work leads to poorer patient care and causes rapid job burnout amongst the group.
Nursing isn't the most glamorous job, and an important qualification is to be concerned about patient care and attentively provide it. When RNs must care for six or seven patients at a time, they cannot provide the top-quality care they might like to. It's a stressful situation, one which is in some ways beyond their control, but which they nevertheless have to witness the negative effects of daily or even hourly. Eakin, an RN herself, has identified this as a major issue in Pennsylvania? ?We often don't have time to provide the care our patients need and deserve. For nurses, whose profession rests on the premise that our care is delivered in the sole interest of our patients, this presents a terrible dilemma.?
Eakin is quite knowledgeable on the topic. She has been an RN for 33 years and spent ten of those as an emergency room nurse. Not only that, but she serves an administrative role in the nursing field as the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). She has found that nursing ratios can be as staggering as ten extremely ill patients assigned to a single nurse on a general medical floor. She points out what an unsafe and truly unfair situation this puts patients in. ?After all, we expect to go into a hospital to get better, not be the casualty of a serious error caused by inadequate staffing.?
Eakin has worked to find a solution to this problem. She announced that PASNAP, alongside the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), is sponsoring Pennsylvania legislation that would mandate a minimum safe-staffing RN-to-patient ratio in hospitals statewide. SB 742, the Pennsylvania Hospital Patient Protection Act of 2009, if passed into law, would guarantee such ratios are met as well as protect the rights of nurses to advocate on behalf of their patients, and provide whistleblower protection for nurses who report unsafe conditions. Such legislation has been in place in California since 2002 and has had remarkably positive results. SB 742 would also invest in training new nurses.
Some remain skeptical of how this potential-law could play out. If the nation is in a nursing shortage and an economic crisis, will the state be able to meet mandated ratios? In California an additional 100,000 RNs have been licensed since the passing of a similar law; their yearly average has tripled compared to years before the law was in place. Additionally, it has been demonstrated time and again that safe nurse-to-patient ratios not only increase patient safety but are also cost-saving. According to an study published in Health Affairs, staffing more RNs to meet the low ratios of the top 25 percent best-staffed American hospitals would result in net short-term cost savings of $242 million.