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Nurses go on offensive against 14 Twin Cities hospitals

Star Tribune, 6/8/10

By David Joles
Star Tribune
June 8, 2010

With two days to go before a planned strike, the Minnesota Nurses Association is going public with stories of alleged poor patient care to back its assertion that Twin Cities hospitals are dangerously understaffed.

The union, which says hospital staffing is at the core of its dispute with management, has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to tell some of those stories.

"We don't think the general public truly understands just how unsafe things are inside our hospitals, and that it's getting worse," said Cindy Olson, a member of the nurses' negotiating team.

In a news release Monday, the union cited several examples of what it calls dangerous staffing. Among them: a nurse at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park who said a dying patient "had to sit in his own feces" because no one was available to clean him up, and a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids who called for help when a patient's surgical incision ripped open, "but nobody came."

The hospitals responded Monday that the anecdotes are "unsubstantiated stories" and criticized the union for using them as weapons in their labor dispute. "It just doesn't reflect what's actually going on in our hospitals," said Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for the hospitals. She said Twin Cities hospitals have some of the best patient outcomes in the country, "by any measure."

To some, the union's move could be an effective strategy in an increasingly public conflict over the scheduled walkout June 10.

"We have a battle going on for the public's approval," said Hy Berman, a retired professor of labor history at the University of Minnesota. "When you think of [hospitals] saying that patient care is their No. 1 concern, this is a good counter."

He said the nurses' plan for a one-day strike is also designed to appeal to public sentiment. "It's very creative," he said. "It emphasizes the fact that nurses are concerned with patient safety, but it puts the hospitals in a bind."

The staffing issue has been one of the main sticking points in contract talks that began in March between the union, representing 12,000 nurses, and 14 hospitals. The union wants fixed nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, while the hospitals want more flexibility to assign nurses where they're needed.

Website solicited stories

After talks broke down last week, the union posted a call on its website for "short-staffing horror stories," to show the impact on patients.
The union said nurses file about 1,200 reports of "unsafe staffing" incidents at Twin Cities hospitals every year.

"Our nurses really feel like the public doesn't get what this is all about," said Nemo, the union spokesman.

He said the hospitals have painted them "as money-hungry, greedy nurses," when they're mostly concerned about staffing and unsafe care. "Why are they striking? This is why," he said. "Because patients are sitting in their own feces."

The union declined to provide names and details because, Nemo said, the nurses fear retribution.

Without details, officials at Methodist and other hospitals said they couldn't confirm the specific allegations. "As we approach the strike, we are going to hear a lot of rumors and unsubstantiated stories ... like this one," said Gloria O'Connell, a spokeswoman for Allina Hospitals & Clinics, which includes Mercy Hospital.

Anecdote questioned

Ginger Malone, chief of nursing at Children's Hospitals and Clinics, said another scenario reported by the union seemed implausible. According to the union, a nurse at Children's was overwhelmed when she was assigned three infants at one time in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU). When one baby died, the parents asked her to stay with them, but another infant began crying and the third stopped breathing.

Malone said nurses in that unit are rarely assigned more than two infants, and that backup nurses are always on hand. "We have some of the highest staffing comparatively with other NICUs," she said. "It's an area that we are especially proud of."

Schriner said the hospitals encourage nurses to file "unsafe staffing" reports when something goes awry to help prevent problems from recurring and to improve patient safety.

She added that "it's easy to criticize how our hospitals operate on an anecdotal basis."

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