Nurse staffing and patient outcomes: Strengths and limitations of the evidence to inform policy and practice. A review and discussion paper based on evidence reviewed for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Safe Staffing guideline development

Int J Nurs Stud. 2016 Nov;63:213-225. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2016.03.012. Epub 2016 Mar 30.


A large and increasing number of studies have reported a relationship between low nurse staffing levels and adverse outcomes, including higher mortality rates. Despite the evidence being extensive in size, and having been sometimes described as "compelling" and "overwhelming", there are limitations that existing studies have not yet been able to address. One result of these weaknesses can be observed in the guidelines on safe staffing in acute hospital wards issued by the influential body that sets standards for the National Health Service in England, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which concluded there is insufficient good quality evidence available to fully inform practice. In this paper we explore this apparent contradiction. After summarising the evidence review that informed the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline on safe staffing and related evidence, we move on to discussing the complex challenges that arise when attempting to apply this evidence to practice. Among these, we introduce the concept of endogeneity, a form of bias in the estimation of causal effects. Although current evidence is broadly consistent with a cause and effect relationship, endogeneity means that estimates of the size of effect, essential for building an economic case, may be biased and in some cases qualitatively wrong. We expand on three limitations that are likely to lead to endogeneity in many previous studies: omitted variables, which refers to the absence of control for variables such as medical staffing and patient case mix; simultaneity, which occurs when the outcome can influence the level of staffing just as staffing influences outcome; and common-method variance, which may be present when both outcomes and staffing levels variables are derived from the same survey. Thus while current evidence is important and has influenced policy because it illustrates the potential risks and benefits associated with changes in nurse staffing, it may not provide operational solutions. We conclude by posing a series of questions about design and methods for future researchers who intend to further explore this complex relationship between nurse staffing levels and outcomes. These questions are intended to reflect on the potential added value of new research given what is already known, and to encourage those conducting research to take opportunities to produce research that fills gaps in the existing knowledge for practice. By doing this we hope that future studies can better quantify both the benefits and costs of changes in nurse staffing levels and, therefore, serve as a more useful tool for those delivering services.

Keywords: Cost–benefit analysis; Diagnosis-related groups; Economics, nursing; Manpower; Medical staff; National health programs; Nursing personnel; Patient safety; Review, systematic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Economics, Nursing
  • England
  • Health Planning Guidelines
  • Inpatients
  • Nursing / standards
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / trends*
  • Personnel Staffing and Scheduling*