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Measuring nursing workload in intensive care: an observational study using closed circuit video cameras


Reneé Adomat,
School of Health Sciences – Nursing,
University of Birmingham,
Birmingham B15 2TT,


Background. There is an increasing demand for intensive care provision in the United Kingdom (UK), partly because of a national shortage of intensive care beds. The problem is compounded by the current method for calculating the nurse: patient ratio using a Nurse Workload Patient Category scoring system or similar adaptations used in many intensive care units. This ratio is calculated by using patient category or dependency scales, which operate on the assumption that the more critically ill the patient, the more nurse time is needed to care for the patient. However, many mechanically ventilated critically ill patients (allocated a high category of care) may need less nursing care than patients who are self-ventilating and allocated a lower level of dependence.

Purpose. In this study, a video recorder was used to document nurse activity for 48 continuous shifts in two intensive care units to determine the accuracy of the Nursing Workload Patient Category scoring system in measuring nurse workload.

Methods. The video data were correlated later with the Patient Category allocated to the patient by the nurse at the time.

Results. The results of this observational study demonstrated that, despite complex care needs, a high percentage of nursing activities observed in each unit consisted of low skill activity. Furthermore, nurses spent less time with patients categorized as in need of intensive care than those in need of high dependency care in both units.

Conclusion. The findings suggest that existing nurse:patient ratio classifications may be inappropriate, since nurses spent less time with critically ill patients. Radical reconsideration of nursing levels and skill mix might make it possible to increase intensive care provision because fewer nurses would be needed to staff each bed. The findings support alternative and more flexible systems for assessing workload and the use of different nurse:patient ratios.