Dr. Julius Cuong Pham, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says the findings suggest unfamiliarity with surroundings may contribute to more frequent serious medication errors.
Pham and colleagues examined a national Internet-based voluntary medication error reporting system and data from 2000-2005, encompassing nearly 24,000 emergency department medication errors among 592 U.S. hospitals.
The study, published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality, found medication errors made by temporary workers were more likely to reach the patient, result in at least temporary harm and also be life-threatening, than errors by permanent staff.
The research team cautions it may be easy to blame the temps themselves for the errors but the problem is probably more diffuse and complex.
"A place that uses a lot of temporary staff may have more quality of care issues in general," Pham says in a statement. "It may not be the temporary staff that causes those errors but a function of the whole system."
The research raises serious issues related to temporary nursing staff in particular because they already are a substantial and growing part of the healthcare workforce owing to the national nursing shortage, Pham says.
The temporary workers are used to plug holes in both short-term and long-term work schedules, and are seen as a cheaper alternative to permanent hires -- while they tend to earn more per hour, but don't receive benefits, Pham says.
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