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Nursing burnout linked to higher infection rate

Tuesday - 7/31/2012, 7:44am  ET

WASHINGTON - More nurses report feeling burned out at work and it affects the quality of care at hospitals across the country.

Long hours and heavy patient loads come with the job, but apparently nurses fall victim to job burnout more than people in other professions, according to a new study.

More than one-third of the participants reported emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and feeling a lack of accomplishment, according to the study out of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing.

The study, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, found that burnout leads to mistakes.

How often do those mistakes occur?

The research found a correlation between every extra patient for whom a nurse cared and the number of hospital-acquired infections. The number rose by one for every 1,000 patients.

The study found patients suffered higher rates of catheter-associated urinary tract infections and higher rates of surgical site infections as the proportion of burned out nurses rose. For every 10 percent jump in burned out nurses, the rate of infections per 1,000 increased by one for urinary tract infections and by two for surgical site infections.

The study's lead author, Jeannie P. Cimiotti, hopes the findings will prompt hospitals to reconsider how many patients nurses treat at a time and reduce that number in an effort to decrease the rate of infection.

The study surveyed more than 7,000 registered nurses working in 161 hospitals in Pennsylvania, then merged that data with numbers of hospital infections from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council and with national data on the characteristics of the nation's hospitals, according to a NBC News Vitals report.

"Nurses deal with life and death every day," Cimiotti says in speaking to Vitals about how burnout happens. "How many people go to their job and say, 'This one died and this one died and this one died?' Often they see as much failure as they see good."

The findings come down to staffing levels having a direct impact on patient health. It's not the first to find the link. A 2010 University of Pennsylvania study found that patient deaths would drop by 14 percent in New Jersey and 14 percent in Pennsylvania if those states adopted California's mandated nurse-to- patient ratios of 1-to-5 in surgical units, reports Vitals.

WTOP's Megan Cloherty contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)