More than eight patients per nurse on a “regular basis” can increase the risk of harm in adult hospital wards, according to ground-breaking new guidelines on safe staffing levels in the NHS.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence will publish draft recommendations on Monday about nursing workforce levels in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals – the first of a series of guidelines on safe staffing in different healthcare settings.
On individual wards, the draft guideline highlights the importance of the nursing team’s awareness of patient needs and “red flag events”, which signal that an immediate response is needed, such as an urgent need for additional nurses.
These “red flag events” include patients not being provided with basic care requirements, such as help with visits to the bathroom, being asked about pain levels or delays in providing medicines.
“Assessing patient needs is paramount when making decisions about the number of nursing staff”
The lead nurse should consider any “red flag events” as indicators of the ward becoming in danger of being understaffed and, therefore, tailor the number of available nursing staff as needed.
The draft guideline highlights that if each registered nurse is caring for more than eight patients during the day time on a regular basis, there is an increased risk of harm. It stresses the importance of checking if patient needs are adequately being met in these situations.
However, a NICE spokeswoman stressed that eight to one was not a minimum ratio, but rather a point where senior nurses needed to check and assess their nurse staffing numbers.
“There is no floor or ceiling number on the required number of nursing staff that can be applied across the whole of the NHS,” added Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social care at NICE.”
She said: “What the [NICE] safe staffing advisory committee concluded was that assessing patient needs was paramount when making decisions about the number of nursing staff and planning should allow for flexibility on a day-to-day or shift-by-shift basis.”
The government has consistently rejected the idea of setting a single minimum staffing level, despite increasing support for a ratio of one nurse for every eight patients on acute wards.
A one-to-eight ratio is favoured by the Safe Staffing Alliance, which was formed in summer 2012 and is supported by a range of nursing organisations and senior nurses.
Their campaign is based on evidence from the National Nursing Research Unit showing that care becomes unsafe and can lead to patients dying unnecessarily when numbers of patients per registered nurse falls below certain levels.
The draft NICE guideline also calls for hospital boards and senior management to take greater responsibility, and includes step-by-step guidance on how to determine the number of nursing staff that should be funded.
The evidence shows that providing a higher proportion of registered nurses in the skill mix contributes to better outcomes for patients, the draft guidance stated.
The development of guidance on staffing for different services by NICE was a key recommendation made by Robert Francis QC in his seminal report on care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust. It was also recommended last August by Professor Don Berwick in his report for the government on patient safety.
The government announced it would ask NICE to develop guidance on staffing levels in its initial response to the Francis report in March 2013. It subsequently referred the work to the institute in November.
“This guideline is an important step forward in addressing the issues of having adequate numbers of nursing staff within the NHS”
To support use of the guideline in hospitals, NICE said it would be assessing a range of practical toolkits designed to assist in estimating staffing requirements.
Staffing toolkits which comply with guideline recommendations and meet specified criteria will be given the NICE endorsement.
Professor Leng said: “Following on from the Francis and Berwick reports, the Department of Health and NHS England asked NICE to develop evidence-based guidelines to advise the NHS about safe staffing.
“Our first draft recommendations… focus on wards that provide overnight care for adult patients in acute hospitals,” she said. “This guideline is an important step forward in addressing the issues of having adequate numbers of nursing staff within the NHS.”
She called on nurses to take part in the consultation on the guidance, highlighting that it was “vital that we have the views of relevant stakeholders”.
Responding to the publication by NICE of the first set of guidance for staffing levels on adult inpatient wards, Royal College of Nursing said it was “encouraged” by the creation of the guidelines.
“Too often, staffing levels are allowed to yo-yo because of finances, and this puts staff under strain and patients at risk”
RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said: “They underline what we already know, that a registered nurse caring for more than eight patients under these circumstances is a cause for concern – in many cases, considerably more nurses will be needed. The skill mix is also vital – to allow for supervision from ward sisters and other senior staff.
“These guidelines will be very important when hospitals come to determine how many staff they need. In conjunction with the influence and experience of senior nurses, wards should be able to fully assess their needs and adjust them to suit demand.”
He added: “It is also crucial that needs are not only assessed, but also met, and resources are made available to keep care safe. Too often, staffing levels are allowed to yo-yo because of finances, and this puts staff under strain and patients at risk.”
The RCN, which contributed to the draft NICE guidance, said it would be responding to them “in detail as part of the consultation”.
Gail Adams, head of nursing at Unison, said: “We do welcome NICE’s recognition of the link between caring for eight patients or more and the increase in risk to patients, but it is a shame that it falls short of calling for a national mandatory minimum.”
“There is safety in numbers when it comes to caring for patients and that means legal staff patient ratios,” she added.
She noted that a recent survey by the union found 45% of nurses were caring for eight or more patients so action is needed now.”
Unison expressed disappointment that the consultation was limited to those registered with NICE, which it said missed an opportunity to engage with nurses, patients and students.
As previously reported by Nursing Times, as well as the work by NICE, NHS England and the Care Quality Commission have told trusts to put new staffing transparency systems in place by the end of June – as a further response to the Francis report.
The number of staff on each shift must be displayed outside all inpatient wards, monthly updates on staffing given to the trust’s board and published online, and there must be an establishment review every six months.
The NICE document – published to coincide with International Nurses’ Day on 12 May – follows a warning last week that most frontline nurses feel they remain severely understaffed.
In a joint survey of over 1,800 nurses by Nursing Times and ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme, 82% of respondents said they did not have sufficient time to give patients adequate care.
Latest official workforce figures show hospitals were employing around 2,400 more nurses on acute, elderly and general wards in October 2013 than they were when the Francis report was published in February.
Despite the creation of some extra posts, which have been welcomed by ministers, the survey results suggested further recruitment was vital.
The public consultation for the draft NICE guideline will begin on 12 May and closes on 10 June 2014. Visit the NICE website to take part.