Stethoscopes dangled around the necks of nurses wearing navy NursesTakeDC t-shirts and big smiles. “Where are y’all from? We’re from Arizona!” More than 800 nurses from 40 U.S. states congregated at the NursesTakeDC Rally on May 5th in Washington, DC. The rally was to support legislation establishing federally mandated requirements for safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, while drawing public attention to the staffing crisis in many U.S. hospitals. This was the second such rally; last May, the inaugural event drew about 250 participants to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

The rally was cosponsored by the grassroots nursing movement Show Me Your Stethoscope, a group that formed spontaneously on Facebook after nurse Janie Harvey Garner watched The View host Joy Behar ask why a nurse in the Miss America pageant was wearing “a doctor’s stethoscope” around her neck. That group now has more than 650,000 members. Other rally sponsors and supporters included the Illinois Nurses Association, Hirenurses.com, Nursebuzz, The Gypsy Nurse, Century Health Services, and UAW Local 2213 Professional Registered Nurses.

The NursesTakeDC rally was originally scheduled to take place on the steps of the Capitol, but thunderstorms and downpours forced the meeting indoors at a hotel in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. Although the setting lacked symbolism, participants still raised handmade posters and shouted rally cries. Rally organizers estimated the weather had an impact on overall attendance, but they were still encouraged by the turnout. After the speakers wrapped up, a group of about 150 nurses headed to the U.S. Capitol steps for photographs and final thoughts.

NursesTakeDC

© 2017 David Miller, RN

Two, Four, Six, Eight, Patient Safety Isn’t Fake

“We aren’t laughing, we want staffing!” Cheers and whistles erupted out of the crowd. After 10 minutes of rally cheers and chants, the gathering turned its attention to the first of many speakers who would highlight issues faced by nurses in every specialty and across the profession. Actress Brooke Anne Smith began by reciting a moving poem about nurse warriors on the front lines.

Event organizer Jalil Johnson then took the stage, giving a keynote speech that addressed the challenges bedside nurses face every day. He spoke about nurses as the foundation of health care, and the unrelenting pressure to perform in deteriorating conditions. While discussing dire staffing situations, Johnson said that he fought every day, “making sure I didn’t give anyone a reason to come after the license I had worked so hard for.”

He discussed the paradox that year after year, nurses are rated the most trusted profession, yet no one trusts nurses when they say they are overworked, overburdened, and practicing in unsafe conditions. Nurses alone are not enough to fight this battle, he said. “To the public, we say: Trust us when we say the industry makes it nearly impossible to deliver the care you need. Trust us when we say we need your support.”

Other NursesTakeDC rally speakers included Katie Duke, Terry Foster, Deena McCollum, Linda Boly, Julie Murray, Catherine Costello, Kelsey Rowell, Leslie Silket, Dan Walter, Nicole Reina, Monique Doughty, Doris Carroll, Charlene Harrod-Owuamana, Debbie Hickman, and Janie Harvey Garner.  

The Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act

On May 4th, the day before the rally, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reintroduced the latest iterations of the Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act (H.R. 2392 and S. 1063). The bills seek to amend the Public Health Service Act to establish registered nurse-to-patient staffing ratio requirements in hospitals.

In a press release, Rep. Schakowsky’s office writes: “This bill is about saving lives and improving the health of patients by improving nursing care—ensuring that there are adequate numbers of qualified nurses available to provide the highest possible care.” The press release acknowledges that study after study has shown that safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios result in better care for patients. “It’s time we act on the evidence and the demands of nurses who have been fighting to end to dangerous staffing,” the release continues. “I’m proud to be a partner with nurses across the country in promoting this bill and working to ensure quality care and patient safety.”

Rep. Schakowksy attended last year’s event, but was unable to attend this year. The Nurse Staffing Standards Act is the latest in a string of bills that have been introduced to Congress every session. Previous bills S. 864 and H.R.1602 died in committee last session. S. 864 was first introduced in May of 2009; H.R. 1602 was first introduced in 2004 and has been sponsored seven times so far. Rally co-chair Doris Carroll explained why: “The legislation is reintroduced session after session, and it continues to die in committee because there is no bipartisan support.”

In today’s environment, politics can be touchy. The day before the rally, the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act of 2017. Among nurses there are very polarized viewpoints on health care, abortion, assisted suicide, and other controversial topics. In his speech, Johnson acknowledged that not all nurses think alike. “We are a profession divided,” he admitted. “But when it comes to safe staffing, we all agree. This is a movement devoid of partisanship. Staffing is not a partisan issue.”

The proposed text and ratios for the Nurse Staffing Standards Act are below:

A hospital would be required during each shift, except during a declared emergency, to assign a direct care registered nurse to no more than the following number of patients in designated units:

1 patient in an operating room and trauma emergency unit
2 patients in all critical care units, intensive care, labor and delivery, and post anesthesia units
3 patients in antepartum, emergency, pediatrics, step-down, and telemetry units
4 patients in intermediate care nursery, medical/surgical, and acute care psychiatric care units
5 patients in rehabilitation units
6 patients in postpartum (3 couplets) and well-baby nursery units

Rally speakers encouraged nurses to reach out to their representatives in Congress to show support for safe staffing legislation, and handouts for participants detailed how to find representative names and numbers for letter writing campaigns and phone calls.  

Where Is Everybody?

When one of the speakers asked why there wasn’t more involvement in the grassroots movement, and why there weren’t more nurses present, several voices called back from the crowd. “Everyone’s working!” one shouted. Another called out, “They don’t have the money!”

“Really, where the heck is everybody else?” one rally participant said. She gestured to the conference room, which at the time held about 100 nurses. This nurse was part of a group attending from New Jersey, including Kate McLaughlin, a registered nurse and founder of NJ Safe Patient Ratios, a group dedicated to the support of safe staffing in New Jersey and promotion of ratio law S. 1280 in New Jersey’s Senate.

“In New Jersey, multiple bills have been introduced, every single session, and nothing ever passes,” McLaughlin said. “In California it was the same thing, and then the tenth year, they involved unions and patients and it finally worked.” She said she started to pay attention to safe staffing laws in her state, and launched a petition on change.org. “I stalked nurses on Facebook and found people that way,” she continued. “Each week, we organize and post the contact information for two state senators.” She is starting a movement in New Jersey, hoping to motivate others to show support for these bills. “It’s an election year,” she said. “Now is the time.”

McLaughlin said her state’s ratio law was first introduced in February 2016, but there has been no vote and no hearings, “which just feels disrespectful.” She was told the governor didn’t support the bill, and “that we might need to wait until there’s a new governor.”

The problem, according to several nurses at the rally, isn’t a lack of awareness. “I think it’s apathy,” McLaughlin said. “This is a profession of predominantly women, and we are taken advantage of. They know we don’t get breaks, but they’re okay with the labor law violations. We’ve somehow accepted that this is normal—this is not normal.”

Carroll also expressed discontent that no one seems to care about this issue. “Why has this taken so long? Why hasn’t California’s success spread like wildfire?” she asked. “Well, health care changed, and it became a multi-billion dollar business for hospitals and insurance companies.”

Dan Walter, another speaker, acknowledged that sometimes nurses do not report safety issues because they fear retribution. Walter is a former political consultant and publisher of HospitalSafetyReviews.com, a web site that he established for nurses to anonymously post about patient safety issues where they work. In his speech, he explained the inspiration for creating the site: “You are the activists and you know what needs to be done. I want people to be able to go there, post, and we will keep it as anonymous as possible so we can protect you.” He expressed hope that this web site will be a powerful platform to improve patient ratios.

How Bad Is Staffing?

Nurses from a hospital in downtown Washington, DC, expressed frustration with the lack of support and resources from hospital administrators. “The other day, we had so many critical patients in the department we ran out of monitors,” one said. Another said that 80% of the nurses who work in her hospital’s emergency department have less than two years’ experience. “The turnover is so high,” she said. “People get so burned out because of the short staffing.”

Just how short are units staffed? “In our ED [emergency department], someone the other night was taking care of seven patients,” one nurse from this group said. “And these were sick patients, people with LVADs [left ventricular assist devices], and ICU patients.” This is common all over the country. A medical-surgical nurse may be taking care of up to eight or more patients at a time.

Llubia Albrechtsen, a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner at the rally, said there have been times she has refused to take on additional patients in the emergency department where she works. “When I have five patients, I need to take a step back and pay more attention, because their conditions may worsen,” she said. “It’s hard, because we could be providing excellent care to many of our patients, but with limited resources we have to do the best we can and hope nothing bad happens.”

Albrechtsen said that although hospital administration makes an effort to listen to nurse concerns about staffing, through town halls or open meetings, not much has changed. “Many areas still work understaffed,” she said.

Why Does Staffing Matter?

A policy brief disseminated at the rally lists the effects of inadequate nurse staffing, including the overwhelming evidence that safe staffing saves lives. High patient-to-nurse ratios lead to poor outcomes and a demonstrated increase in patient morbidity and mortality. Inadequate staffing has been associated with an increase in hospital readmissions, falls, pressure ulcers, hospital-acquired infections, and medication errors.

Poor staffing is expensive. In addition to causing poor patient outcomes, nurse burnout causes injuries, illness, and contributes to the growing nursing shortage. Replacing nurses due to turnover takes between 28 to 110 days, and costs the average hospital $6.2 million per year.

“The health care industry generates $3 trillion annually,” Johnson said in his address. “We are living in an age of greed, where the health care industry measures patient satisfaction by a customer service model. This is prioritized over quality and safety. Reducing burnout, staff retention, and caring for your staff are at the bottom of the barrel of priorities.”

What’s Next?

The grassroots movement behind safe staffing is fighting for environments that allow nurses to do their work in the way in which they were trained. “[A nurse’s] work has been diminished to defensive practices; it has been reduced to a list of tasks to complete,” Johnson said. “That is not nursing.”

In Johnson’s final remarks, he spoke to empower nurses to return to their states, hospitals, and colleagues with a message to inspire change. “We have to show up in person, put boots on the ground, and be ready to engage and pull more nurses into this movement,” Johnson said. “Most importantly, we have to believe that with over 3 million registered nurses and over 1 million licensed practical nurses, our profession can come together as one. We will take back our profession and regain control of our practice.”

Another rally is already in the works for next year. The organizers of NursesTakeDC will now direct their focus toward supporting any state that has pending policy and legislation aimed at improving nurse-to-patient ratios and safe staffing. Organizer Carroll said that this year is a learning curve for the organizers, and they hope that next year they will have something even better with an even bigger audience.

“We encourage all nurses, practicing at all levels and in all settings, to unify and support beside nurses in the fight for safe staffing,” said Johnson to a room full of applause and cheers. “We fight for recognition—we will not justify our existence! There is no health care industry without us, and we will determine what is best for our practice and for our patients.”

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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