WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thousands of nurses marched from the Capitol to the White House on Friday to protest layoffs and hospital economy moves they contend are threatening their jobs and their patients' health.

The nurses, some clad in traditional white uniforms and caps, cheered speakers at a rally on the West Front of the Capitol who denounced hospital takeovers by for-profit chains and economy moves forced by managed-care plans.

Union leaders and other nurses' advocates charged that hospitals are replacing registered nurses with lower paid aides with a fraction of the nurses' training and skills.

Joan Swirsky, editor in chief of Revolution _ The Journal of Nurse Empowerment, which organized the protest, said, ``We are the ones who mop your brow, who hold your hands. ... who suction your tracheotomy. We are the last patient advocates in America.''

Approximately 5,000 people took part in the march, estimated Sgt. Dan Nichols of the U.S. Capitol Police.

Marjorie Beyers, a hospital industry executive, criticized the march, saying it ``may unnecessarily scare patients. These events chip away at the public's confidence in both the nursing profession and hospitals.''

Beyers, executive director of the American Organization of Nurse Executives, said that hospitals are trying to free ``registered nurses from tasks that do not require their expertise, such as delivering food trays to patients' rooms and changing bed linens.''

The crowd jeered when Arlene Kalbeitzer, a nursing instructor at Montgomery County, Md., Community College, told how she had to reapply for her nursing job at a Maryland hospital last year that switched to ``patient-focused care'' and hired ``multi-skilled technicians'' to work alongside a smaller complement of nurses.

Laura Gasparis Vonfrolio, the publisher of Revolution magazine, accused hospitals of perpetrating consumer fraud by dressing ``untrained workers in uniforms just like nurses, so the patients won't know what's happening to them.''

Barb Burgess, 47, of Worcester, Ohio, who now works at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, praised conditions there, but said she had been laid off from two other Cleveland hospitals that had cut back in the last two years.

At one hospital, she said in an interview, she had to care for 12 critically ill patients at a time with the help of one aide or ``a licensed practical nurse if I was lucky,'' Burgess said. ``I felt like I was in a war zone.''

Valerie O'Hanlon, 25, who is finishing a two-year nursing program at Gwynedd Mercy College outside Philadelphia, said the major teaching hospitals there won't even accept applications from student nurses. ``Every place we call says, `We're laying off our own staff.'''

The United States has more than 5,000 acute-care hospitals and 1 million beds, a third of which go empty every night. The length of hospital stays has fallen and fewer patients are admitted as new techniques allow more outpatient surgery.

Some of the nation's most prestigious hospitals have laid off hundreds of nurses in the past year as they try to cut costs and compete for managed-care contracts.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, charged that hospitals are sending patients home while they are still sick. Medicare and Medicaid cuts that are being talked about in Congress will only make matters worse, he said.