Two thirds of nurses have had to sacrifice time spent comforting and talking to patients because they are over-worked / Rex Features

Thousands more nursing posts have been cut since the research uncovered under-staffed wards

Two-thirds of nurses have had to sacrifice time spent comforting and talking to patients because they are over-worked and wards are under-staffed, new research has shown.

The vast majority of ward nurses admitted to having to ration care, according to a survey published in the BMJ Quality and Safety journal, because they did not have time.

The Royal College of Nursing called the findings “depressing and unfortunately not surprising” and criticised recent cuts to nurse staffing levels.

Rationing of care was reported by 86 per cent of almost 3,000 registered nurses working at 46 NHS hospitals between January and September 2010. Since then nearly 5,000 nursing posts have been cut.

Analysts from the National Nursing Research Unit divided care activities into 13 categories.

The most likely activity to be dropped due to time pressures was comforting and talking to patients, with 66 per cent of nurses saying they were unable to find time for it. On average nurses were missing out four care activities in a normal shift.

Educating patients and updating and developing care plans were also severely rationed.

The fewer patients a nurse looked after, the less likely it was that care would be missed or rationed, the researchers found.

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “These are depressing findings and unfortunately not surprising. When nurses are overloaded with tasks, and have extremely limited time to complete them, something has to give.

“Without enough staff on the ground, it’s vital care such as having the time to talk with, and reassure, patients that suffers.

“Cutting nursing posts to save money is a false economy – it leads to poor care which in turn creates more strain on the system, particularly in accident and emergency departments. We need to prevent poor care by making sure wards are well-staffed, not just use poor care as an early warning sign. We urge all employers to make use of this research.”

The report’s authors said their findings raised “difficult questions for hospitals in a climate where many are looking to reduce, not increase, their expenditure on nurse staffing”, and urged hospitals to reduce the number of patients per nurse to seven or fewer.

Last week NHS England announced plans to appoint more than 4,000 new nurses in the coming year, partly in response to an unprecedented number of trusts missing A&E waiting-times targets last winter.

A spokesman for NHS England said: “We are committed to ensuring that all patients receive compassionate and competent nursing care.

“We welcome this report and expect providers to use the evidence available to ensure they have sufficient staff on wards with the right skill mix to provide high-quality services to patients.”