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Shortage of skilled nurses is placing patients' lives at risk

The severe shortage of experienced registered nurses in Australia's medical and surgical wards is a recipe for disaster, says Professor Christine Duffield from UTS.

Professor Duffield, of the Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Health and Director of the Centre for Health Services Management at UTS, says adverse patient outcomes are more likely consequences given the nursing shortage.

"The medical profession does not accept the critical role that nurses play in achieving positive patient outcomes, and this is wrong," says Professor Duffield.

"Nurses are in the wards 24 hours a day, and if they don't have the skills to alert the doctors to problems with patients, then patients are in real trouble."

She says international and Australian data confirm that the makeup or "skill mix" of nursing staff in hospital wards is critical. The more registered nurses there are the better the outcomes.

"In New South Wales medical and surgical wards, registered nurses makeup of the skill mix is as low as 42 percent, and the situation is similar for the rest of the country. This situation is extremely unsatisfactory and is a recipe for disaster."

The UTS Report, Glueing it Together, commissioned by the New South Wales Department of Health has now linked the role of nursing staff to patient outcomes, and it has focused on the skill mix in hospital wards and the hours of care received by patients, says Professor Duffield.

"Skill mix is critical. Currently we have many very inexperienced trainee nurses assisting junior medical staff in hospitals around the country, and this impacts on patients."

Professor Duffield says nursing data should to be included in any league table system in Australia.

"We also need to look at strategies around retention of nurses. It seems we can get them into nursing programs but the problem is retention."

Professor Duffield discussed the relationship between nurse staffing and adverse patient outcomes at the National Forum on Safety and Quality in Health Care in Adelaide on 30 October 2008.

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