The Economics of Nurse Patient Limits

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Health care is in the hot seat once again in Massachusetts politics due to a ballot question on nurse staffing limits. If passed, MA ballot question #1 would impose strict patient limits for nurses along with steep penalties for violations. This is fundamentally a bad idea and economic theory can do a lot to help explain why.

The Economics 

The problem at hand here is that nurses believe they are threatening patient safety due to their heavy patient loads. Hospitals have been reluctant to hire more of them, so nurses have resorted to this ballot question as a solution.

Patient limits will cause economic inefficiencies within the hospitals though. Nurses have high patient loads because there is a high demand for nurse care. Since the supply of nurses is slow to grow, current nurses have to make up the difference. If we impose a limit, it will act as a non-market supply ceiling. The inefficiency occurs since demand for nurse care will be exceeding its supply, but the nurse care supply is stuck where the limits set them at.

Since patients still need the same amount of nurse care, there will be patients in hospitals who are unable to receive a nurse’s aid. These patients are essentially dead weight loss, the present demand that cannot be satisfied due to market limits.

The Outcome

What this all means is that patients will be left out to dry without a nurse. The patients being served will have a more focused nurse, but those without one will be at risk of not being treated properly.

Hospital nurses and their union are claiming that this ballot question will help patients receive better care. It does not solve to the overarching issue of lack of nurses, though. If the question is passed, nurses will be better off but patients won’t be.

My Take

Nurses have a right to be concerned about their patients, but a government regulation is not the answer. It will just make the system more inefficient and does not solve the real issue of a lack of nurses. Activists should focus the fight on hospitals and should work more towards getting more nurses. A better legal approach may be to fight for stricter nursing staffing requirements. This would do a better job at addressing the overarching issue without creating the inefficiencies of ballot question #1.

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