More than 70% of nurses work through pain—and patients may suffer, too

A rise in medication errors, patient falls linked to nurses working while ill

Topics: Nursing, Employee Engagement, Workforce, Productivity

July 9, 2012

A series of studies suggest that when nurses' physical and mental well-being suffers, they are more prone to making dangerous, costly medical mistakes, according to the New York Times.

Led by University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor Susan Letvak, researchers surveyed nearly 2,500 hospital RNs for a study that appears in The American Journal of Nursing and focuses on quality of care. Researchers also surveyed nearly 1,200 hospital RNs for a another study that ran in Clinical Nurse Specialist and focused on depression, pain, presenteeism, and medical errors.

Getting sick when caring for sick

The researchers found that nearly 20% of nurses wrestle with depression—or twice the rate of the national population—and that more than 70% experience some level of physical pain while at work.

More than 60% of nurses self-reported that working while ill or in physical pain had affected their care. Extrapolating from the data, researchers deduced the risk of a nurse making a medication mistake or letting a patient fall increased by 20% when a nurse was experiencing pain on the job.

When researchers extrapolated the individual costs of these medical errors, they found that nurses could incur as much as $2 billion annually on the national health system by working while in pain.

"We have money bleeding out the back door because we don't have a healthy workforce," Letvak told the Times, but nurses may be hesitant to discuss pain or depression for fear of losing their job. She contends that the current employment model focuses on "penalizing nurses instead of early recognition and treatment." Meanwhile, nurses suffering pain or depression have few resources available at the workplace, according to the Times, and nurse managers often have little education in how to identify and aid colleagues with health problems.

Nurses may also feel compelled to work while in pain as a part of their work ethos—knowing that often strained nurse-to-patient staffing ratios will mean more work for their colleagues.

"We are supposed to care for everyone else and soldier on," Letvak says, although nurses may not realize the potential risks of doing so. Understaffing hospitals with nurses is associated with increased mortality as well, according to a study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine (Chen, "Well," New York Times, 7/5).

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