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Nurse shortages especially affect black patients


Older black patients are three times more likely than older white patients to suffer poorer outcomes after surgery, including death, when cared for by nurses with higher workloads, according to a study.

The large-scale study showed higher nurse workloads negatively affected older surgical patients generally and that the rate was more significant in older black individuals. When the patient-to-nurse ratio increased above 5-to-1, the odds of patient death increased by 3% per additional patient among whites and by 10% per additional patient among blacks.

J. Margo Brooks Carthon, RN, PhD, and colleagues with the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing studied more than 548,000 patients ages 65 and older who underwent general, orthopedic or vascular surgery in 599 hospitals in California, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These hospitals are among the largest in the country and account for more than a fifth of the nation’s hospitalizations.

“Hospitalized surgical patients sometimes experience periods of instability in vital functions, and the quality of nursing care they receive has a significant effect on their recovery and well-being,” Carthon said in a news release. “This is particularly relevant to older black patients because of associated complex medical conditions that may compromise their health status postoperatively.”

In the study, 94% of patients were white and 6% were black. Data were comprised from nearly 30,000 hospital staff nurses working directly in patient care. The study assessed mortality and failure to rescue, which was defined as death after the development of a post-surgical, in-hospital complication.

Study data suggested the probability of death for black patients is equal to that of white patients when the patient-to-nurse ratio is low to average (5-to-1 or lower). The finding that the odds of death for older black patients were greater in hospitals where nurses had heavier workloads has particular implications for the delivery of care and signals an important focus of future research and intervention, Carthon wrote.

“These results suggest that improving the quality of postsurgical outcomes of older patients, particularly older black patients, means putting more nurses on the floor,” Carthon said. “Better staffed hospitals are better prepared to meet the more complex needs of older patients, particularly minorities with higher rates of co-existing conditions.”

The study appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study abstract is available at


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