Nurses on strike

Monday saw the first strike by health service staff in England and Wales for 32 years. This dispute surrounds the refusal of the government to implement a 1% pay rise recommended by the NHS pay review body. The reason for not awarding the pay increase given by the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, was that it is “unaffordable”.

There are a number of intersecting interests involved in any industrial action such as this where various stakeholders have a number of positions to consider. For example, the Secretary of State for Health must balance his mandate to protect public health with political considerations such as re-election and positioning within his party. The reasons for rejecting the pay increase, however, are typically given an economic flavour; in particular, Jeremy Hunt warned that an increase in pay this year may lead to the laying off of a large number of nurses next year, leading to a reduction in the quality of care. But, an examination of some of the economic issues surrounding the rejection of pay increases in the healthcare sector may suggest that the driving forces are more likely to be of a political nature.

In England and Wales, the wage paid to nurses is regulated by the state, and is homogeneous across all areas regardless of the local wage rate. Propper and van Reenen (2010) showed that in areas where the regulated nursing wage is lower than the ‘outside’ market wage there are reductions in the quality of nursing staff and hence healthcare quality, which they measured using hospital mortality rates for acute myocardial infarction. Moreover, they found that ‘the effect is “convex” in that the negative effect of regulation on hospital quality is much stronger in the high-cost areas (where regulated wages are much lower than the outside wage) than the positive effect in the low-cost areas (where regulated wages are higher than the outside wage).’ While these findings may be used to argue against a nationally regulated pay structure for health service staff, they certainly suggest that suppressing the nursing wage is likely to have deleterious consequences to patient health outcomes.

Much of the reasoning behind reducing pay is to do with constraining expenditure in the healthcare sector which, across most developed countries, is rising as a proportion of GDP. Nonetheless, there are sound arguments as to why we might expect healthcare to take up an increasing proportion of national expenditure, and furthermore, why this is not a worry. In particular, the Cost Disease argument (which has been previous discussed here and here), suggests that healthcare will take up a bigger and bigger proportion of the GDP pie, but that this pie will grow at least as quick. This is, in part, due to the low marginal rate of substitution between capital and labour and less than average rate of productivity growth in the healthcare sector. If these arguments hold, then governments may be unnecessarily reducing real terms health expenditure. Indeed, in many cases the government targets for NHS spending are wholly unrealistic (Appleby, 2012).

There have certainly been changes to the composition of the labour force in the healthcare sector. The density of nurses has declined from 12.21 per 1,000 people in 1997 to 8.93 per 1,000 people in 2013 while the density of physicians has increased from 2.3 to 2.79 per 1,000 over the same period (World Health Organisation – data here). This may perhaps reflect a replacement of some nursing tasks with capital or the evolving nature of medical care. However, in many areas, recommended nurse to patient ratios are not met; for example, in neonatal care, one recent survey of neonatal units found that 54% of observed shifts were understaffed with respect to recommended nurse to patient ratios (Pillay, 2012). However, given the relative lack of evidence on the cost-effectiveness of nurse to patient ratios, it cannot be said that the reduction in total nursing labour is the result of calculated cost-effectiveness decisions.

Taken together, it would seem that suppressing the nursing wage rate, or reducing the number of nurses, would have negative consequences on patient outcomes. There may certainly be an argument that the losses in quality are worth the costs saved, whether you agree with it or not, but no evidence has been presented to support this point. At a macroeconomic level, the austerity plan presented by many Western governments, the UK’s included, is rejected by a large proportion of economists.* As many economists and commentators have suggested the austerity programme is likely to be used to satisfy political ends rather than economic ones.** The reduction (in real terms) of the nursing wage may support political gains at the expense of healthcare quality and worse patient outcomes.

*For a discussion of these issues and numerous links, see the blogs of Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, Martin Wolf, Jonathan Portes, and Chris Dillow among many others.

**Again, this wide ranging discussion is captured by many commentators, see, for example, here and here, from the above mentioned blogs, and this article.

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