Smart staffing laws enhance safety

By Jane Teske and Julia Weinberg

Imagine a hospital ad boasting that it had more registered nurses and direct-patient-care professionals to care for you than any other hospital. Nurses like us dream about hospitals staffing and bragging about direct-patient care.

But patients are seeing fewer nurses and other health-care professionals like us at their bedsides. While many hospitals offer state-of-the-art equipment, plasma TVs and elegant lobbies, they are doing it by cutting bedside care.

Nurses prevent up to 85 percent of all hospital medical errors and deaths. Despite numerous studies that demonstrate a clear connection to safer patients with smarter staffing, hospitals have strayed from this core mission of patient care.

The gap in bedside care is compounded by a chronic nursing shortage and hospital layoffs. Unsafe hospital staffing puts patients at risk. An estimated 100,000 patients die from preventable medical errors each year.

So it is distressing to see hospitals defeating several bills this legislative session that would require them to implement safer staffing. They are now focused on defeating House Bill 2501, a bill that would create safeguards against hospitals that use mandatory overtime practices to cover chronic staffing shortages.

When you board an airplane, you know the pilot is rested and appropriately staffed before the plane takes off. But patients check into hospitals that are inadequately staffed for the true needs of patients. Hospital professionals are forced to deliver complex, life-saving medical care fatigued and without breaks. This trend in direct-patient care puts patients at risk.

Hospitals argue that mandatory overtime practices are critical to protecting patients for emergencies. But hospitals are in the business of providing emergency patient care and refuse to responsibly staff for it to protect the patients in their care.

Health-care workers are on call to address patient emergencies, not chronic staffing shortages.

We believe it is time hospitals put patients’ needs first by ensuring that the staff who are most needed to safeguard their care are there in sufficient numbers — the registered nurses and other health-care professionals who provide direct-patient care.

Competition among hospitals has forced hospitals to shift critical health-care dollars away from patient care to finance glitzy capital improvements like ornate hospital lobbies and urgent-care centers to lure new patients.

Three years ago the Legislature passed the Safe Patient Care Law. It required hospitals to create nurse-staffing committees to address chronic staffing shortages and issues that compromise patient safety. But the legislation did not hold hospitals accountable for failing to implement these reforms. In some cases, hospitals not only ignored staffing recommendations tied to patient needs, they reduced staffing.

Even though registered nurses are independently licensed by the state as health-care professionals, we have no authority to change unsafe hospital staffing without the Legislature. In fact, many of us risk losing our jobs if we fail to comply with unsafe working conditions. That’s why even in this tough economy, experienced nurses and new graduates are abandoning the profession.

We can ensure better patient care and save health-care dollars with smarter staffing, multiple studies show.

Nurses and health-care professionals who provide direct-patient care are supporting House Bill 2501 to protect patients. It’s time lawmakers joined us in closing this gap in patient safety and hold hospitals accountable for unsafe staffing.

Jane Teske and Julia Weinberg are registered nurses with the Campaign for Patient Safety, a coalition of more than 54,000 registered nurses and health-care workers statewide.