'Burned-out' nurses lead to increase in preventable patient infections, study finds

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 10:20 a.m. MDT

Tabitha Rain, center, talking with RN Jeff Busby, left, Tabitha recently graduated from Salt Lake Community College with her associate's in nursing and has been working for the past three months at the Davis County hospital as a registered nurse. Sunday, March 11, 2012.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Overworked and "burned-out" nurses may not be the only ones suffering, according to a recent study that found a correlation between increased preventable infections among patients and overextended nurses trying to care for them.

"For every extra patient added to a nurse’s workload, there was roughly one additional hospital-acquired infection logged per 1,000 patients, according to researchers from the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing," reported NBC News.

This study intricately examined the effect of burnout on nurses using a recognized scale, The Maslach Burnout Inventory, to track factors associated with job-related burnout.

"When nurses are chronically stressed and feel unsupported by the work environment, it can lead to lapses in infection control practices," reported NBC News.

"Researchers looked at more than 7,000 registered nurses at 161 hospitals in the state to see how nurse staffing and burnout affected the two most common HAIs, catheter-associated urinary tract infections and surgical site infections, according to the study announcement. They found that more than a third said they had an emotional exhaustion score of 27 or greater on the Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey, the equivalent of being 'burned out'," according to a FierceHealthcare article.

There are several factors at play including the shortage of quality nurses as well as the demands and pressures associated with the job that are a recipe for burnout.

"Staffing, of course, is a big part," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. "When there also is a lack of teamwork and support from the top, and an inability to act independently, 'stress builds up and builds up and builds up until the giver of care just detaches,' said lead author Jeannie P. Cimiotti, and 'all of a sudden they are doing work, but they are not even cognizant of what they are doing, they are so stressed.' They may forget to wash their hands.”

Reducing burnout could not only save lives and improve patient care, but it could also save a substantial amount of money.

"If hospitals could reduce their proportion of burned-out nurses to 10 percent from the 30 percent that is typical, according to the study, they would prevent 4,160 cases a year of the two most-common hospital-acquired infections statewide and save $41 million," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Insurers are increasingly unwilling to reimburse the expense of treating preventable infections."

The problem has intensified in recent years, with policymakers introducing legislation aimed at alleviating the stress placed on nurses and ultimately improving patient care.

"Pressure on nurses has risen in recent years as medical conditions have gotten more complex and lengths of patient stay have shortened," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Trenton and Harrisburg are among dozens of state capitals where nurse-backed legislation mandating minimum staffing ratios has been introduced but not passed."

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