Are Overworked Nurses Causing Medical Errors?

by John McKiggan

Are staffing demands putting patient safety at risk?

Last week the media reported two stories of interest to patient safety advocates.

The Province of Nova Scotia released statistics from its medical errors registry suggesting that, in the last six months, medical errors had caused almost thirty cases of serious injury or death in hospitals throughout Nova Scotia. If you are interested, you can read my article about the problems with Nova Scotia’s medical errors registry.

News also broke about a nurse working at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital who worked so much overtime that she was paid more than the hospital CEO. According to the Cape Breton District Health Authority registered nurse Catherine Bedard was paid more than $257,000.00 last year. That is more than triple the $81,000.00 an experienced nurse is paid under the Nova Scotia Nurses Union’s Collective Agreement.

Lots of overtime = long hours

Even taking into account time and a half or double time payments for working holidays, the numbers suggest that nurse Bedard must have been working upwards of 80 hours per week.

Overworked nurses a concern

Why is this news a concern to patient safety advocates?

Over six years ago I raised a concern about nurses being overworked. Statistics Canada released a report showing that nurses who worked longer hours reported more medication errors stating:

“Among nurses who usually worked overtime, 22% reported medication errors, compared with 14% of those who did not work overtime.”

It is not hard to see how nurses who are forced to work more hours may be more tired, distracted and prone to errors.

24% of Canadian adverse events due to medication errors

Almost 1/4 of medical errors are caused by medication mistakes.

The Canadian Medical Association released a study “The Canadian Adverse Events Study: The Incidents of Adverse Events in Hospital Patients in Canada” that found that 1 in 19 adults will be given the wrong medication or wrong medication dosage and that 24% of preventable adverse events were related to medication errors.

Unfortunately Nova Scotia’s new Adverse Event Medical Registry does not provide a breakdown of the nature of the adverse event and whether it was due to medication errors or other causes. As I wrote in my article yesterday, this is a serious flaw in the registry procedure.

Who is supervising workload at CBRH?

The fact that a single nurse is working such an astonishing number of hours raises concerns about workload and ultimately patient safety at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital (CBRH). It is a simple fact that when we are forced to work longer hours we become more tired, more error prone and more subject to distraction.

Hopefully last week’s revelations will result in the Province taking a close look at staffing levels at Cape Breton Hospitals and the other Health Authorities across the Province.

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