Fewer patient deaths linked to more four-year nursing degrees

Higher levels of education for nurses lead to lower mortality rates for patients following common surgeries, finds a new study published in Health Affairs.

Researchers found an average reduction of 2.12 deaths per 1,000 hospital patients for every 10 percentage-point increase in nurses holding a baccalaureate degree in nursing. For patients experiencing post-surgical complications, the study found an average reduction of 7.47 deaths per 1,000 patients.

If the 134 Pennsylvania hospitals in their study had increased the percentage of their working nurses with baccalaureates by 10 points during the study, conducted from 1999-2006, roughly 500 deaths among general, orthopedic and vascular surgery patients might have been prevented, according to the research announcement.

The study draws from a recent Institute of Medicine report that brought attention to the issue of nurse education. The report called for 80 percent of the registered nurse workforce to hold at least a baccalaureate degree by 2020.  In 2008, a national survey revealed that only 45 percent of nurses had a bachelor's degree.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, state officials plan to eventually replace the two-year Master of Science in nursing with a three-year doctoral program for would-be nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse midwives and certified registered nurse anesthetists, the News & Observer in Raleigh reports. Those already certified could continue practicing without the new degree.

Kristen Swanson, dean of UNC Chapel Hill's school of nursing, said the new degree will enhance nurses' decision-making skills and understanding of health policy, the article notes.

"You suddenly have real complex ... illness and social problems to put together and address," Swanson told the News & Observer. "It's going to take more sophisticated health-care providers of just about any flavor you can imagine. It's going to call for teamwork in ways it never has before."

To learn more:
- read the Health Affairs study abstract
- read a the research announcement from the University of Pennsylvania
- read the News & Observer article