Low numbers of nurses ‘threatens patient safety’

16 Apr 19
A quarter of NHS nursing wards in England are operating with “high-risk” staffing levels, research has found.

Patient lives are being put at risk due to a low numbers of nurses despite policy changes to combat the problem in 2013, a study from the University of Southampton has said.

One in four NHS trusts surveyed reported that the number of patients per registered nurse exceeded 1:8 – the ratio deemed a threat to patient safety – on more than 65% of shifts in the last year.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence created this ratio guideline following the Francis Inquiry in 2013 which examined the failings in care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust between 2005 and 2009.

The study by the university, out today, found that although the total number of nursing staff in acute care has increased since the inquiry, increased patient admission over the same time has meant there is no net improvement in staffing levels.

Professor Jane Ball, research fellow at the university and lead author of the report, said: “The ongoing national shortage of registered nurses, and failure to increase supply sufficiently, has not been addressed.

“NICE identified a ratio of eight patients per registered nurse as a level that threatens patient safety. But in our survey of Directors of Nursing, one in four reported wards were routinely running with this high-risk level.

“This continued failure to train enough registered nurses to meet patient needs is a fundamental flaw and misalignment of policy.”

The study included a survey of directors of nursing in all acute hospital trusts in England as well as analysis of national workforce data.

Researchers noted that while overall nursing staff numbers have increased since 2013, the proportion of the workforce made up by less skilled healthcare assistants also grew leading to a dilution of skills.

Registered nursing staff grew by 10% between 2013 and 2016 compared to healthcare assistants which increased by 30% over the same period.

Royal College of Nursing England director Patricia Marquis said:  “It will trouble patients and the public today to hear the experts warn again of the deadly risks being run and that some parts of the NHS have one in five posts vacant, according to this report.”

She added: “The report is right to raise concerns around the increased numbers of support staff, too – these increases must be matched by rises in registered nurses if we’re to keep the full and appropriate mix of skills in care settings.”

The Health Foundation recently warned that a shrinking health workforce threatens to undermine the NHS Long term Plan.

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