Guest Opinions

Pasco nurse who met with Sen. Walsh says giving nurses a break will improve patient care

Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, and Nicole Worley, a registered nurse at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco.
Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, and Nicole Worley, a registered nurse at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco. Nicole Worley

Senator Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, recently gained national attention for saying nurses in small rural hospitals don’t need breaks, and “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” Her remarks generated national coverage and comments from thousands and thousands of angry nurses.

Senator Walsh later explained she was tired and shouldn’t have said that, and I understand. I’m sometimes tired at work, and fatigued healthcare providers, like lawmakers, can make mistakes.

So let’s move on from the hullabaloo around Walsh’s comments. Let’s focus on the real issue we can all agree on — protecting hospital patient safety by reducing fatigue and distraction in their nurses and medical technicians. As Senator Walsh notes, fatigue leads to mistakes. On average, 400,000 patients die each year in the U.S. from avoidable medical errors, according to a study in the Journal of Patient Safety. Medical errors are now the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. after cancer and heart disease.

As a nurse at the critical access hospital in Pasco, I flew to Olympia to meet with Senator Walsh to ask my fellow Republican to support SHB 1155, a bipartisan bill mandating rest breaks for hospital nurses and healthcare technicians who often work 10 or 12 hours in a row without a break to use the bathroom or eat a meal.

Unfortunately, the bill was recently amended to exempt “critical access hospitals” in rural areas from patient safety standards.

My patients say they come to Lourdes Medical Center, a critical access hospital, because they appreciate the one-on-one medical attention and care they get at a smaller hospital. But just because we’re small doesn’t mean we aren’t busy.

As an orthopedic nurse, I work intense 12-hour shifts ensuring my patients get safe and professional medical care. We are often filled to capacity because Lourdes handles more knee, hip, and spinal surgeries than the other two regional hospitals combined. The hospital floats nurses to emergency, medical-surgery, or our inpatient rehab center, when one unit is busier than another.

When I’m at work, adequate, uninterrupted rest breaks mean I’m more focused on my patients, not distracted by hunger pains, aching feet, or a full bladder. I’m a professional, so even if I’m in dire need of food or a trip to the bathroom, I won’t take my break unless someone else is there to cover my patients and ensure they are safe and well cared for.

Contrary to some claims, the majority of Washington’s critical access hospitals are financially stable and can afford to hire one or two extra employees to ensure patients are safe and fully covered.

According to Washington Department of Health data, for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, the total surplus income for the 40 WA critical access hospitals was $208,657,776.

No more than 30 percent of critical access hospitals have negative margins in any given year, and that is usually due to short-term factors such as capital expansions.

I’m one of thousands of nurses and frontline caregivers represented by three unions, UFCW 21, Washington State Nurses Association, and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, fighting to fix SHB 1155 and ensure strong patient safety standards at every hospital in WA, including small rural hospitals.

We know there’s no good reason to exempt patients at critical access hospitals from safety standards. Legislators in Olympia should avoid another mistake and fix SHB 1155, ensuring all Washington state nurses and frontline caregivers are rested, focused, and ready to give excellent care to all of our patients.

Nicole Worley has been a registered nurse at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco for four years. She is a member of UFCW 21.