Our commentary is from author Sarah DiGregorio, whose latest book is called “Taking Care: The Story of Nursing and Its Power to Change Our World”:
If I say “nurse,” what do you think of?
Maybe it’s a nurse who cared for you, or of nurses going to work during the pandemic.
Or perhaps what springs to mind are countless dire headlines: Nursing shortages, nurses quitting, nurses striking. It can all blur together into a nebulous miasma of bad news. After all, many of us already know that the health care system isn’t working well for us. So, when we non-nurses hear about nurses striking for better staffing, it might sound just like another intractable, inside-baseball, health care dispute.
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Nurses strike because they know what the public doesn’t: Your survival can depend on whether or not your nurse has time to care for you. Nurse-to-patient ratios can be a matter of life or death.
Research over decades has shown this strong association: The higher the level of nurse staffing, the more likely you are to be discharged alive, or to have a good outcome. Ratios sound bureaucratic, but they tell a real story: If you are hospitalized, your nurse might be assigned four patients, or they might be assigned, for instance, eight patients. That’s not unusual. What that ratio means for you, though, is that you may or may not get the care that you need, because a nurse can’t be in eight different places at once.
Nurses are often the first to notice signs of a stroke, of liver failure, of a need for more intensive respiratory support. Without a nurse to notice and address those complications, sometimes patients die avoidable deaths.
This is such a real risk that nursing has a term for it: failure to rescue.
Hospitals often claim that labor costs are too high, and that’s one reason nurses are asked to work short-staffed. But hospital administrator pay has continued to rise in recent years. Just for instance, the CEO of Hospital Corporation of America made over $14 million in 2022. Unlike the correlation between nurse staffing and patient outcomes, researchers have 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 should its budget reflect its purpose?
The purpose of nursing is to maximize people’s health and well-being. So, we need to make sure nurses have the working conditions that make it possible for all of us to get the care we deserve.
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Story produced by Lucie Kirk and Amol Mhatre. Editor: Emanuele Secci.