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Ronnie Polaneczky | Nurses are ready to work, but want fair staffing

By Ronnie Polaneczky

Posted on Tue, Nov. 25, 2003

THE NURSES at the Medical College of Pennsylvania aren't the only Florence Nightingales who have walked off their hospital jobs, fed up with understaffing that they say puts patient care - and their own jobs - in jeopardy.

They're just the only ones doing it formally.

"I, like many, many nurses,

am on my own private strike," e-mailed "Barbara." She's a registered nurse who says she left the profession for the same reasons that the MCP staff has been walking a picket line for two weeks now.

And, like many nurses who responded to my column last week about the MCP strike, what she wants couldn't be more straightforward.

"I want reasonable staffing and a chance to provide safe, quality patient care. When that happens, I will go back in a heartbeat."

And this talk of a national shortage of nurses?

Oh, please, rage Barbara and her colleagues.

The only shortage they see is in the number of nurses willing to slave any more in hospitals where management is more concerned with slashing budgets than saving lives.

The numbers seem to bear them out.

According to the American Nursing Association, of the 2.7 million licensed, registered nurses in this country, only 2.2 million are employed in the profession.

That leaves 500,000 nurses out there, a good chunk of whom, several studies show, might be lured back to bedside care if hospitals were committed to hiring big enough staffs to keep nurse-to-patient ratios at a safe level.

That ratio can mean the difference between life and death. Research shows that the odds of a hospital patient dying rises by 7 percent for every patient added to the average nurse's workload. And if those nurses are already tired, other surveys indicate, watch out: Their chances of making medical errors climbs even more precipitously.

At MCP, nurses say they're both overloaded and exhausted. Depending on whom you talk to, the hospital is short anywhere from 60 to 75 nurses. MCP bridges this gap, in part, through a policy of mandatory overtime - called "mandation" - which costs the hospital less money than hiring additional staff would.

The nurses I spoke to said this means they're often forced to stay an additional, unscheduled four or more hours on the job, many after already working a 12-hour shift. This scenario plays havoc with their home lives and leaves them bug-eyed with fatigue.

And there's nothing they can do about it.

"Our licensing board says we must refuse any assignment that we know we can't handle," says an MCP intensive-care nurse. "But if we refuse to stay, we can be charged with patient abandonment and lose our license."

Worse, MCP no longer wants to pay double-time for these unscheduled shifts, which nurses fear will lead to even more mandation. So they want an end to all forced overtime, period.

To make their point, the strikers staged a noisy rally outside the hospital yesterday. Today, they return to the bargaining table.

Clearly, MCP's nurses are in a tough spot. And the rest of us ought to be frightened. Because the conditions they describe are found in hospitals nationwide.

In California and a handful of other states, legislation has even been introduced to prohibit mandatory overtime in health-care facilities receiving Medicare. But it remains to be seen whether powerful health-care lobbyists will allow it to move forward.

These are grim times in health care. If you ask me, MCP's nurses are heroes for taking a stand that will be in our best interest the day that we, or someone we love, needs the kind of life-saving care that only a good nurse can provide.

If you feel the same way, the next time you drive by MCP's Henry Avenue entrance, where the nurses continue to picket 24/7, please toot your horn in support of safe, sane nurse-staffing levels.

They deserve it.

We all do.

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