ANF to nurses: Get some sleep

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Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, August 21, 2012

Running on only a few hours of sleep? Just pump the coffee, right?

Wrong, according to the American Nurses Foundation, which is raising the alarm about shift work disorders and the profound ways they can affect nurses and patient care.

"There's increasing research on it, and the nursing angle is so important," says Kate Judge, executive director of the American Nurses Foundation. "Sleep is like water and food, absolutely essential, but it's the thing that we kind of compromise first."

"The issue of whether nurses are healthy or not is a really key issue for the nation. One in 100 people in the U.S. are nurses, so if nurses aren't healthy that's a national issue for the country," Judge tells HealthLeaders Media.

Judge says that an increasing body of research is showing the critical importance of sleep on cognitive function and decision making. Also, the Institute of Medicine says that increasing the proportion of adults who get sufficient sleep is a key objective for improving the health of the population.

She also points a nurse-specific Health Affairs study that shows that "errors and near errors are more likely to occur when hospital staff nurses work twelve or more hours at a stretch."

"It's a key component to whether people are healthy or not," Judge says. "Lack of [sleep] may compromise speed or reflexes, and decision-making skills are down."

For nurse leaders, Judge says the first step is education and awareness, for themselves and their staff. "I think it's not understood by nurses and the greater healthcare population…about how dangerous it is," she says.

She suggests incorporating education and resources about the importance of getting enough sleep into existing workplace health education programs. Like other programs for encouraging a healthy workforce, it fits into an organization's overall focus on patient safety.

Also, since lack of sleep is linked to other health problems, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression, Judge urges hospitals to find creative ways to provide healthy food options for healthcare workers, especially those who work overnight.

"There are so few good food options at 2 am; [it's often] nothing but vending machine food, and rarely is that healthy," she says.

Additionally, nurse leaders need to pay close attention to healthy scheduling practices to be sure that nurses have adequate time to rest in between shifts. Getting enough sleep is also an issue that's been playing out in an indirect way in the battle over requiring nurses to work mandatory overtime, a practice that was recently banned in Massachusetts.

"You have to look at what is the healthiest for nurses and their patients, and mandatory overtime doesn't weight that into the equation," Judge says.

In developing and researching for such education, Judge says she's heard a lot of feedback from nurses about the need to heighten awareness of shift work-related sleep disorders.

"The health of healthcare providers definitively has an impact on patients. If you can make the nurses healthier you can make the whole country healthier," she says. "Sleep and the quality of sleep is a core health issue both for nurses and nurses' patients."

Source: HealthLeaders Media