Overworked nurses mess up patients' meds: a nurse responds to StatsCan report

We hear a lot about Canada’s doctor shortage. But Canada’s also in the grip of a nursing shortage—and a new Statistics Canada study makes the impact of that clear.

According to the 2005 survey (results were released today), almost one-fifth (19 per cent) of Canada’s overworked nurses said they made mistakes in medicating patients “occasionally” or “frequently.” What’s interesting is that nurses’ education or experience levels did not influence these numbers—but workplace demands did.

The study (which was the first of its kind) shows that increased overtime, inadequate resources, lack of support from co-workers and low job security—all hallmarks of a nurses’ shortage—made them more likely to commit medical error. And more people are impacted by this than you might think: according to a separate report from 2007, about 10 per cent of Canadian patients got the wrong meds in 2005.

Lisa Little is director of public policy for the Canadian Nurses’ Association; she’s also a registered nurse. She tells the health blog that StatsCan’s findings don’t surprise her one bit: “It’s exactly what we hear from nurses on the front line,” she says. “Unfortunately, overtime has become the norm for employers trying to deal with the shortage [of nurses].”

In Canada, only 55 per cent of nurses work full-time, Little notes, meaning that many worry constantly about job security and might be split between two or more employers. Nurses who work part-time, though, often “actually work full-time hours,” she adds. “Nurses are called in constantly to work on a day off.” All this job stress not only makes nurses more likely to mess up a patient’s meds; it also makes them prone to illness themselves. Nurses take twice as many sick days as the general workforce does, Little says, which only aggravates the already acute nurse shortage.

Today, the average nurse in Canada is 45 years old. With scores of them set to retire and a lack of young recruits to fill their shoes, Little hopes this report makes the public aware of how the nursing shortage affects them personally. After all, taking the wrong medication can have disastrous results

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