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Practice Matters

Patient acuity tool on a medical-surgical unit

patient acuity tool medical surgical unit ant

Use a tool for consistent, objective, and quantifiable patient assignments.


  • Patient assignments can lead to dissatisfaction among nursing staff, especially when they’re not consistent, objective, and quantifiable.
  • Dissatisfaction can create barriers to the adaptability and teamwork that are critical to good patient care.
  • The patient acuity tool addresses the important issue of unbalanced nurse-patient assignments and helps nurses influence decision-making in their organizations.

By Andrea Ingram, BSN, RN-BC, and Jennifer Powell, BSN, RN

patient acuity tool medical surgical unitPatient assignments can lead to dissatisfaction among nursing staff, especially when they’re not consistent, objective, and quantifiable. This dissatisfaction can create barriers to the adaptability and teamwork that are so critical to good patient care.

In 2016, three RNs on a complex 23-bed medical-surgical unit at Durham VA Health Care System identified a recurring complaint by nursing staff that patient assignments were inconsistent and unequal. An average of five RNs and one charge nurse were assigned five patients per nurse per shift. The nursing assignment system included placing patients in one of two categories: “standard patient” or “involved care” patient. The problem was the subjectivity of these terms; they had no supporting evidence. The result was frustrated nurses, which prompted the unit to develop a process improvement project.

Purpose and goals

We used evidence-based information to create an objective acuity tool to establish patient assignments. The tool uses both clinical patient characteristics and workload indicators to score patients from 1 to 4 based on acuity level. This approach gives nurses the power to score their patient, then report to the charge nurse so that RN assignments for the oncoming shift are quantifiable and equitable. It also gives them the opportunity to assess the level of patient safety risk.

The goals of the tool are to:

  • increase nurse satisfaction with their patient assignment
  • increase nurse perception of patient safety by assigning patients with high acuity scores equitably.

The patient acuity tool

Each patient is scored on a 1-to-4 scale (1, stable patient; 2, moderate-risk patient; 3, complex patient; 4, high-risk patient) based on the clinical patient characteristics and the care involved (workload.) Each nurse scores his or her patients, based on acuity, for the upcoming shift and relays this information to the charge nurse, who then assigns patients before the shift change. The handoff report between RNs allows each to validate patients’ current acuity and care needs. (See Patient acuity tool.)

patient acuity tool medical surgical unit sidebar clinical characteristics


Anecdotal reports by the RN staff and our observations prompted the collection of data from staff. Some of the staff comments about the current system included:

  • “Why are my patient assignments so unfair?”
  • “How will I care for all of my patients effectively?”
  • “Involved care is a subjective term.”

We conducted a literature review and eventually combined two existing tools and restructured them to create our acuity tool. Before implementing the process improvement project, we used the newly created tool to assess the current average distribution of total acuity among nurse assignments, and we asked RNs to complete a 10-question survey to measure their satisfaction with patient assignments and perceptions of patient safety. We then taught the RNs how to use the tool and placed color-coded, laminated copies at every nursing computer.

The tool was pilot tested for 28 days. After the first 14 days, we conducted an audit to assess compliance, which revealed that average compliance among all four shifts was 35%. We then collected data on the average distribution of total acuity among nurse assignments. Progress e-mails were sent to staff, and individual follow-ups were held to promote compliance. At the end of the 28 days, we conducted another compliance audit, which revealed an average compliance among all four shifts of 77%, an increase of 220%.


At the end of the pilot study, we reviewed patient assignments before and after implementing the acuity tool to assess their equality, and we surveyed RNs about the two goals we set for the project: improve nurse satisfaction and increase nurse perception of patient safety.

Equality of patient assignments

To determine the equality of nurses’ assignments within a shift, the difference in total acuity between the highest and lowest scoring assignments was obtained. (See RN assignments using acuity tool.)

patient acuity tool medical surgical unit sidebar rn assignments

Before implementing the acuity tool, the average distribution of total acuity between highest and lowest nurse assignments for each shift was 4.83 (using a scale of 1 = lowest acuity and 4 = highest acuity). After implementation, the average distribution of total acuity between highest and lowest nurse assignments was 3.06, a 36.6% improvement in equality and accuracy.

Goal 1: Improve nurse satisfaction

Three of the 10 questions in the nurse survey were aimed at nurse satisfaction, including RN perception of patient assignment equality, having input into making assignments, and frequency of feeling overwhelmed with patient assignments. The most significant change occurred with the question “Please rate how frequently you feel overwhelmed with your patient assignment.” Response options were never (1), rarely (2), sometimes (3), frequently (4), and every shift (5). According to the survey, the weighted average of nurse satisfaction was 3.19 before implementing the acuity tool and 2.84 (11% improvement) after.

Goal 2: Increase nurse perception of patient safety 

When asked to respond to the statement “I feel like patient safety is a concern when I accept my patient assignment,” RN staff chose from the following options: never (1), rarely (2), sometimes (3), frequently (4), and every shift (5). The weighted average was 3.38 pre-implementation and 3.21 post-implementation, a 5% improvement in RNs’ perception of patient safety. After reviewing the annual performance improvement data, we found no direct correlation between using the acuity tool and patient safety measurements (rate of falls, medication errors, and restraint use). However, by distributing high-acuity patients among nurses, this tool, used in conjunction with other current actions, can reduce the need for patient safety measures such as using sitters and frequent rounding.


We attributed many of the challenges faced during the implementation of this project to staff assignment changes during some 24-hour periods. Sometimes patient assignments changed every 4 hours because of differences in nurse shift length, which left the staff with no consistent communication between shifts. The charge nurse would also occasionally take a patient assignment when patient acuity was high and RN census was low, resulting in outliers in data.

Another challenge included RN staff changes during the pilot study, leading to gaps in education about proper use of the tool, decreased feedback, and less data in post-implementation than pre-implementation. As part of our sustainment plan, we’ll incorporate education on the tool in new staff orientation, adapt it to other medical-surgical units in the hospital, and continue quarterly audits to assess compliance.


Given the original concern by staff that assignments were unequal, one of the strengths of this acuity tool is that it allows nurses to become stakeholders in making patient assignments. In addition, it also gives the charge nurse an objective way to justify assignment rationale. The tool costs no money to implement and requires no special technology. In addition, it’s noninvasive to the unit’s workflow, easy to implement, and easily adapted to different units and their specific needs. We’ve also found that the tool enhances the shift-to-shift handoff report and that it can be used to assign patients based on nurse competence (novice nurses, expert nurses, etc.).

Striking a balance

The patient acuity tool addresses the important issue of unbalanced nurse-patient assignments and helps nurses influence decision-making in their organizations. Our research found that an objective patient acuity tool on a medical-surgical floor could increase assignment equality, improve nurse satisfaction, and improve nurse perception of patient safety. The tool is now being piloted on other units at this facility, and we’ve received consults from other facilities in the Veterans Affairs Health Care System.

Happiness strategies

Use these strategies to create sustainable happiness.

  • Connect socially. Spending time with family and friends is the most important thing you can do to be happy, so create a good work/life balance.
  • Be mindful. Appreciate the present moment and find time for daily meditation.
  • Tend to your physical health. Health and happiness are strongly connected, so exercise regularly and eat healthy.
  • Be spiritual. Whether religion-based or not, spirituality offers a foundation for happiness.
  • Spend money wisely. Rather than spending money on material things, spend it on experiences—family vacations, activities with friends, a mindfulness retreat.
  • Be resilient. Learn the art of bouncing back from adversity.
  • Give thanks. Gratitude is linked to happiness. Take time once a day to think of one thing you’re grateful for.
  • Be positive. Some experts say you can “fake it till you make it”; smiling and engaging in positive behavior can help you become more positive even if that’s not how you initially felt.
  • Live a meaningful life. Connect with goals that have meaning to you and find joy in the journey.

Andrea Ingram is a medical-surgical certified nurse at the VA Health Care System in Durham, North Carolina. Jennifer Powell is a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Selected references

Chiulli KA, Thompson J, Reguin-Hartman KL. Development and implementation of a patient acuity tool for a medical-surgical unit. Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses. 2014;23(2):1, 9-12.

Kidd M, Grove K, Kaiser M, Swoboda B, Taylor A. A new patient-acuity tool promotes equitable nurse-patient assignments. American Nurse Today. 2014;9(3):1-4.

One thought on “Patient acuity tool on a medical-surgical unit”

  1. Carrie Young, RN says:

    I am writing in regards to “Patient acuity tool on a medical-surgical unit” (Morrow and Powell, 2018). I believe patient acuity is a critical aspect to take into consideration when looking at staffing and nursing assignments. I agree with method the article used, creating a tool to score patient acuity. It is important to have an objective way to determine the acuity and fairly assign patients to a nurse. Having a balanced assignment benefits not only nurses by decreasing their workload, but also extends to the patients by giving them better outcomes.
    As a bedside nurse I have experienced overwhelming, unbalanced patient assignments. Being stretched thin forces me to be more task-oriented rather than patient centered, as I would prefer. Several months ago the unit I work for started utilizing a tool similar to the one mentioned in the article. By giving us an objective way to rate the acuity of a patient it lead to more balanced the assignments. It gave us more of a say in the assignments, the charge nurses ask us our opinions on our patient group and if they need to be separated for the next shift. This makes us feel as though we have a voice and give the charge nurse an objective way to fairly make assignments (Morrow, 2018).
    Overall, RNs who rated their assignments as appropriate were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, intend to stay on their current units, and deliver quality care to patients than those who rated their assignments as inappropriate.
    Registered nurses who said that their assignments were appropriate are more likely have higher job satisfaction and deliver higher quality care to patients as opposed to nurses who said their patient assignments were inappropriate and unbalanced (Choi, 2018). I find that in my own practice, a balanced mix of acuity within an assignment group I am able to spend more face-to-face time with each patient as opposed to having a group of patients who are all considered high acuity. Utilizing a patient classification system is a low cost tool that nurse leaders can ensure that nurses are receiving equal assignments.

    Carrie Young, RN

    Choi, J (2018). Registered Nurse Perception of Patient Assignment Linking to Working Conditions and Outcomes. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(5). Retrieved from https://doi-org.liblink.uncw. edu/10.1111/jnu.12418

    Morrow, A. & Powell, J. (2018). Patient acuity tool on a medical-surgical unit. American Nurse Today, 13(4). Retrieved from https://www.americannursetoday.com/patient-acuity-meidcal-surgical-unit

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