REGION — On Jan. 11, more than 300 nurses rallied in front of the Tri-City Medical Center (TCMC) lobby entrance to bring attention to short staffing.
Chants of “what do we want, safe staffing” were called out during the 2.5-hour informational picket.
“Nurses and community came in large numbers, everyone was energized and supported the nurses wholeheartedly,” Brenda Ham Tavares, a registered nurse who has worked at TCMC for more than 30 years, said.
Picketers requested that staffing shortages be corrected, and nurses have more of a say in hospital decision making.
“Currently we are working to negotiate a stronger union contract that gives RNs more power on important committees that address workplace violence, staffing and patient acuity tools,” Tavares said.
The state has strict guidelines for nurse-to-patient ratios in acute care facilities. One nurse to four patients is required in the emergency room, in other areas of the hospital ratios range from one-to-one, to one-to-six.
Tri-City nurses say studies show TCMC does not always meet standards.
“Many times they fail to provide adequate coverage for us nurses during meals and breaks,” Tavares said. “At times TCMC fails to meet the mandated ratios by not adjusting the RN assignments according to patient acuity.”
Nurses say these lapses put patients in danger and force closure of critical units.
“A higher acuity patient needs more care and not having appropriate nurse-to-patient ratios in our assignments is dangerous,” Tavares said. “We often have to close critical units because there isn’t enough staff.”
To exacerbate the problem TCMC eliminated its resource pool of nurses to cut costs. Tavares said this has left every unit short staffed.
“Without these RNs we are missing additional specialized support during times of greatest need putting patients at risk,” Tavares said.
Nurses say staffing shortages were felt over the winter holidays. And added the administration knew weeks ahead of time that the emergency department would be short staffed by 11 nurses on Christmas and seven nurses on New Year’s Day, creating a dangerous environment for nurses and patients.
Nurses say hospital management failed to address anticipated staffing shortages with a plan. The result was long wait times in the emergency department and the closing of beds.
TCMC administration disagrees that there is short staffing and points to an ancillary nursing staff increase by 18.7 FTEs since July 2016.
Hospital administration says state-mandated ratios are consistently complied with and that the hospital pays “premium dollars” to fill shifts.
There are also active procedures to deal with unexpected staff reductions, which include temporary closure of some beds.
“If the ER is short staffed RNs, due to absences planned or unplanned, we may suspend some beds until staffing is rectified,” David Bennett, TCMC chief marketing officer, said.
Additionally, wait times in the ER have been reduced by more than 40 minutes.
“Patient care and staff safety has always been the utmost priority at Tri-City Healthcare District,” Bennett said. “We have always taken our roles as administrators seriously and continually implement proactive actions every shift, every day to ensure appropriate staffing, capacity and safety.”
Tavares said Tri-City nurses are speaking up to protect patients. She added the solution is adequate planning, and keeping patients’ needs a priority.
“We are demanding to have a real voice in patient care because we fear for both our license and our patients,” Tavares said. “Staffing has reached a crisis level especially in the emergency room and the behavioral health unit.”
Tavares added that (perceived) short staffing has caused nurses with 10-plus years of experience to leave TCMC for better working conditions elsewhere for the remainder of their 30-year career.
“Good, experienced nurses from the community chose to leave, and those are the nurses with the level of experience that the community deserves to have at this hospital,” Tavares said.
Tri-City nurses have been in contract negotiations to settle staffing and other working conditions concerns since last summer.
The picket was a means to inform residents within the healthcare district about ongoing concerns.