Increasing the workload of nurses increases the risk of patients dying in hospital, an internationally renowned patient safety researcher says.
Professor Linda Aiken from the University of Pennsylvania said her research showed every patient added to a nurse's workload was associated with a 7 per cent increase in hospital deaths after common surgery
She told a Queensland Nurses Union symposium in Brisbane today that the research also showed the greater the number of bachelor-educated nurses, the lower the number of deaths.
She highlighted a study of nine European hospitals showing if they had at least 60 per cent bachelor-educated nurses and no more than 6 patients each, more than 3,500 deaths a year might be prevented.
"Nursing is foundational to patient safety," she said.
"This has been problematic for improving patient safety because nursing is a soft target for budget reductions.
"So we're not really improving patient safety as much as we would like because we're ignoring the foundational contribution of adequate nurse staffing and good work environments to improving patient safety."
Professor Aiken's research has been published in The Lancet, among other leading medical journals.
She said while Australian patient outcomes had not been included in her studies, it was likely that safety and quality of care varied across Australian hospital to a greater extent than many people believed.
That was because this was also the case in 30 other countries.
"In the 30 countries that we have being doing research on that ... despite different systems, financing, resources in a country, every one patient increase in a nurse's workload is associated with a 7 per cent increase in mortality.
"This is after we take into account all the other possible explanations for mortality, so this is the real direct impact of nurses on patient outcomes."
Professor Aiken also said patient satisfaction was lower in hospitals that used more overseas-educated nurses.
"Culture is important, and culture and communication of nurses is essential," she said.
"So every country's own nurses do a better job of communicating with its own patients than nurses from other countries.
"That's why you can't assume that bringing nurses from other countries are really a good substitute for your own nurses.
"The key to this is foreign-educated nurses could enhance care as long as they're not substituting for your own nurses."