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Poor Hospital Working Conditions Lead to Nurse Burnout, Which Leads to Greater Risk for Patient Infections

When you or a loved one is admitted to a hospital, your only worry should be about getting better. You shouldn’t have to be concerned about the morale of the hospital staff. Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that a hospital’s working conditions can have a direct cause-and-effect relationship to patient health complications.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.7 million hospital patients each year acquire an infection unrelated to the condition for which they were admitted. More than 98,000 of these patients die from the infection.

The very nature of hospitals creates high risk for infections. But a study by the University of Pennsylvania, released in July, points to one specific hospital-related cause for dangerous infections: a poor work environment that leads to nurse burnout.

The study reviewed data from 161 acute-care hospitals, including surveys of approximately 7,100 registered nurses, as well as a report on hospital infections. Researchers focused on examining two types of infections – catheter-associated urinary tract infections and surgical site infections.

Findings of Study on Nurse Staffing and Effect on Patient Infections

The study looked at nurse-patient relationships and concluded that hospitals that have a lower ratio of nurses to patients – that is, fewer nurses looking after more patients – have a higher rate of infections than hospitals that have nurses taking care of fewer patients. The more patients a nurse has to treat, the less satisfied the nurse becomes. This growing nurse dissatisfaction – burnout – leads to “inadequate hand hygiene practices” and other unsafe infection control measures, according to the researchers.

The study claims that:

  • The average hospital rate of urinary tract infections is 7 per 1,000 patients
  • The average hospital rate of surgical site infections is 5 per 1,000 patients

Of the hospitals included in the study, nurses cared for 5.7 patients on average. The study says that increasing a nurse’s workload by even just one patient increases both urinary tract and surgical site infections. In addition, increasing the number of burned-out nurses by 10 percent raises the rate of urinary tract infections by 1 per 1,000 patients and the rate of surgical site infections by 2 per 1,000 patients.

Reducing Nurse-Patient Ratio Leads to Less Infections

To put these numbers into perspective, the study reports that if hospitals could reduce the number of dissatisfied nurses to 10 percent – from the average of 30 percent! – 4,100 infections would be prevented in Pennsylvania hospitals alone, at a cost savings of $41 million.

The study’s authors conclude that improving hospital working conditions and reducing nurse burnout will improve the wellbeing of the nurses and more importantly, the overall quality of patient care.