Nurses are often the unsung heroes of the healthcare profession. While doctors write the orders and call the shots, they almost never spend as much time with hospitalized patients as nurses do. Nurses are the ones carrying out physicians' orders, often noticing errors or problems and advocating for their patients. Yet nurses, as hardworking as they are, can become overtasked, and overworked nurses may be putting your health at risk.

Nurses are often the first ones aware that there is a problem with a patient's condition or treatment. Their ability to spend time with patients is critical to their ability to assess patient well-being and needs. It only makes sense that the greater a nurse's workload, the less time he or she is able to spend with each individual patient. At some point, it stands to reason, the increased workload is likely to result in mistakes in patient care.

The Link Between Overworked Nurses and Medical Malpractice

When you think of medical malpractice, your first thought is probably of doctors who have made an error in treatment leading to a bad outcome. In fact, nurses can commit malpractice too, and poor working conditions increase the likelihood of that happening.

A 2014 study of nurses in the Houston area found that a significant majority, 64 percent, reported rarely getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Nearly a third of the nurses surveyed, 31 percent, said they got adequate sleep only 2-3 nights per week.

Increasingly, hospitals are for-profit businesses, which means they often take measures that lead to the unintended (but foreseeable) consequences of nurses being overworked and compromised in their ability to care for patients. Such measures frequently include inadequate staffing, leading to the heavy workloads which mare result in mistakes in care. A 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of about 95,000 nurses found that 36% of nurses in hospitals and 47% of nurses in long-term care facilities who were providing direct care to patients said that they missed changes in a patient's condition because of their heavy workload.

Many hospitals also put in place rigid protocols which attempt to standardize care; on its face, that seems like a good thing. Unfortunately, the standards intended to protect patients can also end up restricting the ability of those closest to them—nurses—to make decisions that are best for an individual patient. Because of the hospital's need for reimbursement from insurers, nurses are required to follow protocols even if it means doing something other than what a patient most needs.

What to Do if You Suspect Nursing Malpractice

Nursing malpractice is a form of medical malpractice. Like all malpractice, there are certain requirements for a finding of malpractice:

  • A duty of care
  • A breach of the duty by failing to do something that a reasonable nurse in a similar situation would have done (or doing something that a reasonable nurse would not have done)
  • Injury to the patient resulted from breach of the duty
  • Damages as a result of the injury

An example of nursing malpractice is as follows. A nurse has a duty to administer the correct medication in the correct dosage to patients. A nurse inadvertently gives a patient triple the dose of a blood thinner, which a reasonable nurse would not have done. The patient suffers internal bleeding, resulting in pain, slower healing, and an extended recovery time. All the requirements (elements) of malpractice are met.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has been a victim of nursing malpractice, you should consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. It is not essential that you have in hand proof that all the elements of malpractice occurred. An experienced attorney can take the information you do have and help evaluate whether you have a case worth pursuing. If you do, your attorney can pursue legal avenues to uncover the information that will prove your case. He may also be able to identify other responsible parties, such as the hospital that employed the nurse.

However, you have limited time in which to file a claim for nursing malpractice, so you should not hesitate to consult with an attorney, or you may lose your chance to pursue your case.

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