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Burnout in Nurses Increases Patient Infections

Many people experience fatigue and occasional burnouts from their work, but for nurses, that burnout can be dangerous to the patients in their care and cross the line into medical malpractice.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, for every added patient to a nurse's work duties, there was approximately one extra hospital-acquired infection registered per 1,000 patients.

Investigators at the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing conducted the study, and also found a correlation between nurses who reported high burnout rates and the number of infections in surgeries and other nurse-assisted procedures, such as catheter insertion. Greater than a third of the nurses surveyed reported elevated levels of burnout.

The study found that the average number of patients per nurse is 5.7, and when one additional patient is added to that load, extra 1,351 infections occur in the hospital population at large. Increased rates of infection are dangerous for patients, especially those with compromised immune systems or cancer where even a minor infection can lead to a more serious illness and death.

This study is vital since, thus far, there has been extremely limited research into the impact that nurse burnout has on patients, and the topic of nurse-to-patient ratio is the subject of much debate nationwide.

The potentially good news is that when burnout is decreased, not only do infection rates go down, but it also saves money. Decreasing reports of burnout by 30 percent slashed urinary tract infections by more than 4,000 and surgical infections by more than 2,200, and it saved hospitals between $28 million and $69 million in costs to remedy the infections.

Some hospitals are working to address the issues of overburdened nurses and burnout. Approximately 400 of the 5,754 registered hospitals nationwide have received "Magnet" status, which is given when hospitals enact structural procedures that empower nurses and lead to positive patient outcomes. California has a mandated nurse-to-patient ratio of 1-5 in surgical units.

However, the lead author of the study stated that if hospitals are truly serious about infection control and providing the best care for patients, they need to address not only nurse burnout and burdensome workloads, but also reevaluate the system as a whole.

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