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The nurse patient ratio is a number to describe the number of patients assigned to each nurse. Nurse patient assignments are based on the acuity or needs of the patient for nursing care. In critical care units such as the ICU (intensive care unit) the ratio may be 1:1 for the sickest patients or 1:2 or 1:3 for patients who are acutely ill but stable. On general care units the nurse to patient ratio is higher for example 1:5 or 1:8 depending on the type of unit and the needs of the patient. This type of nurse patient ratio is based on guidelines from professional organizations and accreditation bodies, but is also fluid based on the needs of the individual patients at a given point in time.
Typically, this is an easy way to explain how many patients and their care each nurse is responsible for on a nursing unit. Though much energy has been invested to create 'standard' nurse patient ratios, it is usually determined by patient census (how many patients are on the unit), patient acuity (how sick a patient is), and hospital staffing policies. For instance, in critical care areas, one nurse may have one patient if that patient is critically ill and needing one-on-one attention. On a less critical unit, say a med-surg floor, one nurse may be responsible for up to six patients on day shift, but maybe 8 on evening shift. The rationale is that more activity is happening during day shift than the "off shifts."
What's important about this little known information? If an admission is an elective decision (say you need a knee replacement), you should ask your surgeon "What is the nursing ratio on the floor that I'll be sent to post op?" First off, the surgeon should know! And secondly, you can follow up with the surgeon and ask "Is that a safe staffing ratio for my care?"
We worked with a patient who was having lung surgery and when we met with his surgeon, we asked those same questions. Not only did the surgeon know the answers (kudos to him) but he also shared with us that the unit had its own staff--nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, et al. In other words, a well-seasoned team that cared only for thoracic (chest) surgery patients. The take away? The patient felt like he was going to be in good hands post op. And he was.
Don't be afraid to ask your doctor about nurse-patient ratios. He'll be surprised you know (and care) and you'll want to know the answers.