Nurse-patient ratios probably aren’t discussed in most nursing ethics classrooms. But it’s clearly an ethical issue. Check out this recent story out of Massachusetts:
The trade group representing nurses is pledging to put the “sweat equity” of its 23,000 members behind a push to impose statutory nurse-to-patient ratios, but hospital officials are decrying the proposal as running counter to the trend toward a health care system where providers are reimbursed based on the quality of care they deliver and patient satisfaction.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association on Monday outlined plans to press for passage of a 2014 ballot proposal if the Legislature does not act by the middle of next year to pass nurse staffing legislation, which would apply to acute care hospitals.
The proposal calls for one nurse for every four patients in medical/surgical units….
It’s clearly a complicated issue. Nursing ratios are of course crucial to patient care, in general, but I suspect it is very hard to describe a one-size-fit’s-all solution, which is more or less what regulation would require.
Note also the difficult challenge, here, from the point of view of responsible advocacy. The MNA wants to advocate from the point of view of patient safety, which is entirely appropriate. But any attempt to legislate nursing ratios will of course be perceived by some as an attempt to maintain employment levels for nurses.
Finally, note that this issue raises questions of interdisciplinarity and the role of allied health professionals. In some cases, nurse ratios are being reduced because nurses are being replaced (or supplemented) with other kinds of workers. Sometimes that will be a very bad thing (for patients). Sometimes that will probably be a good thing (for patients). Sorting out which is which is a significant ethical challenge.