Nurse staffing league table – why UK’s ranking is a ‘national embarrassment’

Study of 21 nations’ healthcare resources points to shortage of nurses in the UK

The UK has one of the smallest nurse workforces relative to population, according to analysis of 21 European and English-speaking countries.

Picture: iStock

There are 7.9 nurses per 1,000 population, placing the UK sixth lowest in the nurse staffing ranking devised by the King’s Fund think tank in its analysis of spending and healthcare resources.

Below average staffing levels

The trails well behind Switzerland, which has 18 nurses per 1,000 people, Norway with 17.3, Germany with 13.3, Ireland with 11.9 and Australia with 11.5.

In the analysis, which uncovered a similar picture for the number of doctors, hospital beds and scanners, the UK was placed significantly below the average of 10.4 nurses per 1,000 people.

Poland was at the bottom of the list with 5.2 nurses per 1,000 people.

'Bleak picture'

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: ‘These figures paint a very bleak picture about the state of nursing in the UK and will cause national embarrassment. After years of pay cuts and underinvestment, we are haemorrhaging the best professionals.

'Politicians and policymakers know patients pay the highest price when there aren’t enough nurses. Each country of the UK needs a funded and detailed plan to boost nurse numbers and ensure safe patient care.’

RCN campaign for safe staffing

The RCN has been campaigning about the shortage of nurses and the effect this has on patients and staff.

In its Safe and Effective Staffing: Nursing against the odds report published last September, 55% of the 30,000 respondents said they had at least one registered nurse fewer than had been planned for their most recent shift.

The college said the results of this report were ‘harrowing’.

Link to higher patient mortality 

Research from the influential RN4CAST survey for Europe, including the UK, has shown that lower nurse staffing levels are associated with higher patient mortality. It found that an increase in a nurses' workload by one patient increases the likelihood of an inpatient dying within 30 days of admission by 7%. 

The King’s Fund found that the UK has fewer doctors and nurses per head of population than almost all the other countries they looked at. Only Poland recorded fewer of both.

Death rate rises if nurse/patient ratio is higher than one to six

The analysis said: ‘There are approximately 100,000 vacancies for clinical staff in the English NHS, and nearly half (49%) of nurses do not think there are sufficient staff to let them do their job effectively.’

Bed reductions 'may have gone too far'

Only Denmark and Sweden have fewer hospital beds per head of population than the UK. ‘While lower numbers of hospital beds can be a sign of efficiency, the growing shortage of beds in UK hospitals indicates that bed reductions in the NHS may have gone too far,’ the health charity said.

The UK also has fewer magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scanners relative to its population than any of the other 20 countries studied.

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