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Frontline staffing cuts drive up nurse sickness rates

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Major increases in nurse sickness and absence levels result when budgetary pressures lead to staffing cuts, reveals latest UK research.

A study, published last week in this month’s issue of the journal Health Care Risk, shows the potential consequences of slashing the NHS workforce by 10 per cent, as recommended by a government-commissioned report from management consultants McKinsey and Company.

The researchers, from Loughborough University, assessed the effect of the squeeze on NHS budgets in 2006-07, when the government told trusts they must balance their books after the service ended the previous year with a debt of £512m.

Taking one large acute hospital trust as an example, they looked at the impact of reducing expenditure on nursing across five wards – medicine for the elderly, gastroenterology, stroke services, maternity and delivery suite.

In October 2006, the trust introduced a range of tough cost-saving measures including a recruitment freeze and stringent limits on the use of agency and bank staff.

The researchers looked at the impact on nurses and patients during two three-month periods, one before the trust introduced the measures and one several months afterwards.

The data showed a significant hike in staff sickness rates between the periods, with qualified nursing staff taking around double the number of hours of sick after the cuts than previously.

The authors said the cost-cutting measures “would have started a vicious cycle where staff with increasing workloads get increased sickness and absence which in turn further increases the workload of those staff remaining”.

Additionally, the researchers identified a change in the prevalence of pressure sores among patients – considered to be a good indicator of nursing quality – across the three non-maternity wards. Prevalence increased from 1.60 per 1,000 bed days in the first period to 3.39 in the second.

“The impact on the qualified nursing staff was very significant, and sickness and absence levels indicated a significant shift in the risk to staff that could in the longer term have had more serious consequences for patient safety,” the authors warned.

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