The nation's nursing shortage is sure to be exacerbated soon by an uptick in stitches and surgeries that, prior to health-care reform, many Americans likely would have gone without. In years past, hospital administrators have tried to close the labor gap by demanding double shifts and tacking on extra responsibilities. Concerned about being too taxed to do their jobs well, nurses have walked out at least 750 times in recent decades, making the profession among the most strike-prone in the country.
But the consequences of these stoppages have never been fully clear until now. A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that during 50 strikes at New York state hospitals between 1984 and 2004, patients were almost 20 percent more likely to die—a bump in mortality that translates to about 140 deaths. The study "surprises me," says Becky Patton, president of the American Nurses Association. But, Patton says, she still supports hardball tactics if management asks for more than nurses can safely handle. Strikes may kill, she says, but so can poor decisions that are made when a medical professional is overworked.