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Health Services Research

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DOI: 10.1111/1475-6773.13695


Objective: Several studies of nurse staffing and patient outcomes found a curvilinear or U-shaped relationship, with benefits from additional nurse staffing diminishing or reversing at high staffing levels. This study examined potential diminishing returns to nurse staffing and the existence of a "tipping point" or the level of staffing after which higher nurse staffing no longer improves and may worsen readmissions.

Data Sources/Study Setting: The Readiness Evaluation And Discharge Interventions (READI) study database of over 130,000 adult (18+) inpatient discharges from 62 medical, surgical, and medical-surgical (noncritical care) units from 31 United States (US) hospitals during October 2014-March 2017.

Study Design: Observational cross-sectional study using a fully nonparametric random forest machine learning method. Primary exposure was nurse hours per patient day (HPPD) broken down by registered nurses (nonovertime and overtime) and nonlicensed nursing personnel. The outcome was 30-day all-cause same-hospital readmission. Partial dependence plots were used to visualize the pattern of predicted patient readmission risk along a range of unit staffing levels, holding all other patient characteristics and hospital and unit structural variables constant. Data Collection/Extraction methods: Secondary analysis of the READI data. Missing values were imputed using the missing forest algorithm in R.

Principal Findings: Partial dependence plots were U-shaped, showing the readmission risk first declining and then rising with additional nurse staffing. The tipping points were at 6.95 and 0.21 HPPD for registered nurse staffing (nonovertime and overtime, respectively) and 2.91 HPPD of nonlicensed nursing personnel. Conclusions: The U-shaped association was consistent with diminishing returns to nurse staffing suggesting that incremental gains in readmission reduction from additional nurse staffing taper off and could reverse at high staffing levels. If confirmed in future causal analyses across multiple outcomes, accompanying investments in infrastructure and human resources may be needed to maximize nursing performance outcomes at higher levels of nurse staffing.


Accepted version. Health Services Research, Vol. 57, No. 2 (April 2022): 311-321. DOI. © 2022 Wiley. Used with permission.

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