In the best of conditions, nursing is a difficult and often thankless job. But when hospitals become overcrowded and understaffed, the pressure begins to really take its toll.
Nurses in Irish hospitals are reporting that they are losing sleep over fear of making mistakes due to hospital overcrowding and the extra responsibility and stress that comes with it.
One Irish nurse told her story to the Independent – the following is an excerpt from her account:
“In the last number of years we’ve seen our numbers increase and the number of people on trolleys increase year and year.
“But when we ask for help we are told there is no help. There are no more nurses to come down to help us out. …
“Every nurse goes into work with serious concerns that we’ll make a mistake, that we’ll forget to do something or we’ll omit something important because we are juggling so many jobs at once.”
The nurse, whose name was not published, went on to describe the difficult decisions she has to make on a daily basis and how they affect her sleep:
“If you run out of trolleys you are left with the decision to make as to who gets a trolley and who doesn’t,” she said, adding: “At night you are losing sleep because you’re thinking about everything you did or didn’t get to do.”
According to the nurse, morale is low among her colleagues. Even patients notice and ask on a daily basis: “How do you work here?” she reported.
The problem isn’t unique to Ireland, and of course, it’s not just nurses and medical staff who are suffering. Imagine patients waiting many hours or even days for a bed assignment after arriving at the hospital. It happens all the time, and things aren’t getting better.
Hospital overcrowding in the U.S.
In the United States, for example, the number of ER visits grows yearly, while the number of available ERs continues to decrease. As a result, overcrowding and long waiting times have become the rule rather than the exception.
So, how did we get to this point? Historically, emergency rooms were places where mostly traumatic injuries, such as those sustained in an automobile accident, were treated. By the 1980s, however, ERs had become the “backbone of our national healthcare safety net,” according to Referral MD.
In 1986, in response to cases of “patient dumping” by hospitals, Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA), which required ERs to examine and treat all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.
This legislation led to the demise of many ERs throughout the U.S. after patient visits increased and ERs became the “primary care physicians of the uninsured and underinsured.”
As a result, ER wait times increased 25 percent from 2003 to 2009. From 1995 to 2010, ER visits increased 34 percent while the number of available ERs decreased 11 percent.
The Affordable Care Act has further complicated matters, as has the fact that the baby boomer generation is now at the age where its members need more healthcare.
ER overcrowding linked to higher death rates
Hospital overcrowding has even contributed to higher death rates. Patients at overcrowded ERs were 5 percent more likely to die compared with patients treated at those which were less crowded, according to a 2012 study.
All of these factors are making life difficult for nurses, the unsung heroes of our healthcare system who do most of the work and for a lot less pay than surgeons and specialists.
Universal healthcare is arguably a basic right, but someone has to pay for it. Our new president and Congress have vowed to restructure our healthcare system. Let’s hope they can figure out a way to provide the affordable healthcare Americans deserve without breaking the bank and driving all of our nurses into seeking other professions.