Is Anybody Out There? When Call Lights Go Unanswered

By Carrie Motrud, RN

Carrie Mortrud, RN

Carrie Mortrud, RN

If you or a loved one are scheduled for surgery at a Minnesota hospital, it’s important to know how many patients are assigned to a nurse at one time. Sadly, it’s even more important to know that a nurse is assigned to care for you after surgery. Sometimes hospitals just worry whether or not there is an available bed for you after surgery while neglecting that having a nurse to care for you is equally (if not more) important than a bed.

Study after study show that nurse staffing is essential to patient outcomes. In fact, a recent study shows that there is a 20 percent lower risk of patient mortality within 30 days of having general surgery at a hospital with above average nurse staffing levels, defined as facilities that had a mean ratio of about 1.5 nurses per bed versus those with a mean of less than one nurse per bed.

Health care is changing, and that means patient care is changing, too. Now, more than ever, patients who are hospitalized often have a complex set of issues that require ongoing, attentive care. Yet in Minnesota, nurses increasingly aren’t able to provide patients with the care they deserve. That’s because Minnesota hospitals are cutting corners and not scheduling enough nurses to keep up with the patient demand.

In 2015, Minnesota nurses filed a record number of more than 2,700 Concern for Safe Staffing Forms, citing incidents where quality care was compromised or patient safety was at risk because not enough nurse were scheduled for duty. This is an increase of more than 30 percent over the previous year.

One major side effect of short staffing: Nurses can’t answer call lights. In 2015 alone, Minnesota nurses documented 1,504 instances of understaffing that prevented them from answering a patient’s call light. Did this mean a patient just missed their evening snack? No.

In many cases, patients who are fall risks get out of bed without required assistance, increasing the risk of falls. In one case, a nurse reported that a patient was found in the midst of transferring himself to the bathroom, as he couldn’t wait any longer for a nurse to arrive and help him.

Another patient, who was a fall risk and was transferred to the bathroom by her nurse, had to wait on the toilet so long for a busy nurse to answer her call light she returned to bed by herself.

It’s not only about risks of falls. It’s about quality care. When nurses can’t answer call lights on time, it means a patient might be suffering from pain, might need help eating or drinking, might have questions about their prognosis and care, or might be scared or disoriented. When nurses can’t do their job, everyone suffers—patients, nurses, family members, and hospitals.

When nurses can’t answer call lights, they can’t provide patients with the quality care they deserve. Learn more about how a Safe Patient Standard can improve quality care for all Minnesotans.


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