Health Minister Andy Burnham yesterday denied patient care was being compromised by NHS cuts – as a new study revealed people are more likely to die or suffer complications on wards with fewer nurses.

According to research commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing, thousands of lives could be saved by boosting nurse numbers in the health service.

Mr Burnham spoke out less than 48 hours after Government figures claimed acute trusts in the West Midlands could save #124 million by reducing the time patients spend in hospital, minimising emergency admissions and better staff management. But he dismissed the findings of the RCN's study, which revealed patients on poorly-staffed wards had a 26 per cent higher risk of dying.

While very few nurses have been made redundant in the Midlands, trusts have frozen almost 4,500 posts leaving nursing graduates with no jobs to go to.

Mr Burnham said: "You do need appropriate staffing levels to get the right quality of care and there's a level at which care will suffer, but what disappoints me is the way in which the RCN's study has been reported, because there are 89,000 more nurses in the hospitals than there were in 1997.

"In fact the number of nursing redundancies is actually very small, I'm not saying there aren't related pressures in some parts of the country, where difficult decisions are being made.

"The NHS is not set in stone, the way in which healthcare is being delivered is changing as is the environment in which it is being given, that's just the way it is. I am not going to buy into a script that says the health service is falling apart. There's been a huge improvement in the West Midlands in the quality of care."

The study, conducted by Professor Anne Marie Rafferty of King's College in London, surveyed nearly 4,000 nurses in 30 hospital trusts and looked at 118,752 episodes of care – one episode being from admission to discharge for each patient.

Prof Rafferty found that on wards with the lowest nurse to patient ratios, patients had a 26 per cent higher risk of dying. She concluded that had there been more nurses on the wards, 246 lives could have been saved.

Dr Beverly Malone, the RCN's general secretary, said: "This research backs up what nurses have always known: that nurse numbers really do matter and that nurses make a life and death difference to how well their patients recover."

Mr Burnham also denied new indicators to measure productivity in hospital trusts were "not targets by another name".

He further added that moves to reduce patients' length of stay would be interpreted locally, and not dictated by the Government.

"Reducing lengths of stay will be in the patients' interest, so they can return home sooner, for example do women giving birth need to spend three or four days in hospital, it may be possible to reduce that to a day or even less than 24 hours," he said. "Cultures build up over time but they are not questioned so this initiative will help staff ask the right questions."

He went on to back The Birmingham Post's and Cancer Research UK's campaign for a new Cancer Plan to protect the funding of research, services and treatments.

"There is no doubt the schemes put in place by the first Cancer Plan have been very successful and most of the targets it set have already been met," he said.

"We want to make a robust defence for that plan and what it's achieved for patients, we don't want to see that dissipated when the current plan comes to an end in 2010."

>> NHS staff may strike over pay