The quality and safety of a community’s hospitals reflects its values, and residents of Maine have much to be proud of. Leapfrog, a watchdog group focused on hospital safety standards, last month awarded Maine “Top State of the Decade” for “unparalleled achievements” in patient safety. Maine has been the top-ranked state in percentage of “A” ranked hospitals more times than any other state for the past ten years.
A pervasive culture and record of patient safety doesn’t happen by accident. Notably, Maine’s Democratic leaders were quite public last year supporting the union drive of nurses at Maine Medical Center, the state’s biggest hospital system. After getting word that Maine Medical had hired union busters to intimidate its nurses, Maine’s Senate and House leaders, along with 75 other legislators, sent a public letter warning the hospital system to back off.
“We have heard from nurses about being accosted in one-on-one anti-union meetings, dragged from patient care to listen to out of state anti-union consultants lecture them on why they should vote no for the democratic right to negotiate with their employer; and threatened by certain supervisors that they stand to lose benefits, or employment if they vote yes in the upcoming election,” the letter stated. “These nurses and their patients are our constituents. We expect better from the largest hospital in our state – if you intend to take anything away from RNs— including their moral and legal right to a free and fair election we will stand with the nurses against any such attempt.”
Maine Medical’s nurses, who publicly warned about Maine Medical’s patient safety standards declining because of cost cutting measures, got their union certification. That’s good news for Maine Medical patients. Studies show that when nurses unionize, a hospital’s patient safety standards improve. Although Maine Medical’s currently enjoys an “A” safety rating, it’s based on two-year-old data. Maine Medical’s nurses weren’t prepared to wait for Leapfrog to confirm what they already knew.
It’s tragic that nursing unions do a poor job communicating the critical patient safety role their members play, particularly during the pandemic. Global Nurses United was among the first to warn that covid is spread by miniscule particles that can linger in the air and that more protective masks like N95s were required to stop transmission among hospital staff rather than surgical cloth masks. Declining patient safety standards is the reason most cited by the growing number of nurses seeking to unionize around the country. Maine Medical’s nurses in September called out the hospital system for relaxing pandemic standards, but it’s not clear if the union’s warnings were heeded.
What’s clear is that America’s broken healthcare system, where hospital managements enrich themselves at the expense of the medical staff and patient safety, has taken a toll on nurses, pushing the profession to the brink. Hospital nurses are the ones who everyday crawl into the sick underbelly of U.S. healthcare and see and experience how cost cutting and the heightened focus on hospital profits are harming patients. The stress is taking a significant toll on their health.
Back in May, I posted a commentary entitled, “Nurses: The Suffering Heroes of Healthcare.” It was based on a study revealing that nurses are 18 percent more likely to commit suicide compared to individuals in the general population. The study’s findings are even more alarming given they were based on data spanning from 2007 to 2018, so they predate the pandemic.
“The main takeaway is that the risk of suicide among nurses is twice that of the general population and even higher than that among physicians, a population known to be at high risk,” lead author Matthew Davis, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, told the trade publication Medscape Anesthesiology.
Medscape’s sister publication, MedPage Today, published an investigative feature this week warning that “signs point to a deepening issue” with alcohol and drug abuse among nurses. Since the onset of the pandemic, approximately one in five nurses said their alcohol consumption had increased and three percent said they had increased their substance use, according to a survey published by the American Nurses Foundation in October. MedPage said experts it spoke with estimated that one in ten nurses have a substance abuse disorder.
Another alarming survey finding was that 21 percent of nurses said they plan to quit the profession within six months, and 29 percent said they were considering doing so. Forty-seven percent of those who are leaving or entertaining the thought said working as nurse was adversely impacting their health.
Even if only 21 percent of U.S. nurses left the profession, that would severely cripple the U.S. hospital system. The devastation if an additional 29 percent left the profession would be unimaginable.
The American Hospital Association (the AHA), which despite its name is focused on increasing profits and enriching managements, wants the public to believe America’s nursing shortage was caused by the pandemic. It wasn’t. The pandemic has only exacerbated situation that was increasingly dire to begin with.
Most hospital managements engender little employee loyalty, which increasingly caused nurses to quit or work as temps with staffing agencies that pay better wages. As more nurses quit, hospitals’ needs for temp nurses dramatically increased, which resulted in staffing agencies charging more to meet the demand. Nurses were the biggest beneficiaries of this trend, as staffing agencies pay better than hospitals.
The AHA has cried foul, saying nurse staffing agencies are price gouging. The AHA has asked Congress and regulators to intervene. Shamefully the trade group has lined up politicians on both sides of the aisle to take up their cause. It’s a measure of the AHA’s self-interest and myopia that they want to further alienate nurses, rather than pay them better and fair wages to keep them from leaving their profession.
As for price gouging, the U.S. hospital industry’s entire business model is predicated on price gouging.
President Biden has previously said that he supports the rights of all American workers to unionize. Yet Biden, and Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, the Democratic Party’s supposedly lead union advocate, have yet to speak out against AHA members spending tens of millions of dollars on union busters to derail attempts by nurses to organize. Beaumont Royal Oak in suburban Detroit, a once nationally ranked hospital in Levin’s district, spent nearly $2 million on union busting efforts that successfully prevented the hospital’s nurses from organizing. Levin didn’t offer Beaumont’s nurses any support.
The AHA cannot be counted on to champion the concerns of nurses and improved patient safety standards. The public should be demanding their elected representatives to take up the cause and prevent hospital managements from riding roughshod over nurses. Maine’s leaders have demonstrated that when nurses are afforded protections and support, state residents benefit from having the safest hospital system in the nation.