PATIENTS are more likely to die after common surgical procedures when they are cared for in hospitals where nurses have heavier workloads and fewer university degrees.
The study findings, published in the 'Lancet' medical journal today, were derived from more than 420,000 patients in 300 hospitals across the nine European countries.
The findings indicate that every extra patient added to a nurse's average workload increases the chance of surgical patients dying within 30 days of admission by 7pc.
The overall percentage of patients who died in hospital within 30 days of admission was low. It was among the highest in Ireland at 1.5pc and lowest in Sweden at 1pc.
However, in every country, death rates varied significantly across individual hospitals.
A 10pc increase in the proportion of nurses holding a bachelor degree is associated with a 7pc decrease in the risk of death.
The study findings from Ireland, Belgium, England, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland follow the largest investigation of nursing and hospital outcomes in Europe to date.
Prof Anne Scott, of the School of Nursing in Dublin City University, who led the Irish arm of the study, said there was a significant variation in nurse staff ratios between hospitals and even wards here.
"In Ireland, the variation is between 5.4 patients per nurse to 8.9 patients per nurse.
"For every additional patient added to the nursing workload, where the average is eight patients per nurse, there is an increased risk for the patient.
"If there is a 10pc increase in nurses with degrees there is a decline in the mortality rate. The mean range of nurses with degrees in Ireland is 58pc but again it varied from 35pc to 81pc."
She said the findings showed we needed to look more carefully at ratios and also education levels.
"We found that data was not kept at hospital level. Most could not give it to us and we gleaned it from the nurses' survey.
"The number of nurses employed in hospitals has fallen due to the moratorium in recruitment and we also need to examine how we are deploying the nurses we have got."
Prof Linda Aiken from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, US, who led the research said: "Our findings emphasise the risk to patients that could emerge in response to nurse staffing cuts under recent austerity measures."