When you’re lying on an operating table, you want the people behind the surgical masks to be alert, well-rested, and fully focused on your care. Unfortunately, due to loopholes in Washington state law, the opposite is often true: health care professionals in your operating room may be hungry, exhausted from a 12-hour shift, or urgently in need of a bathroom break.
Unlike in many other states, hospital administrators in Washington can count all sorts of momentary pauses in active patient care as a hospital worker’s “break” time – like those three minutes spent waiting in the ambulance bay for a patient to arrive, or one minute grabbing a sip of water in the hall before heading into the operating room. This means in practice that nurses and other front-line caregivers are regularly forced to hold it in, skip meals, and work long shifts without any meaningful, uninterrupted rest or meal breaks.
As the Spokesman Review reports, this is not just bad for hospital workers, it’s bad for our patients. Tired, distracted medical caregivers are less likely to catch the mistakes that can lead to serious injury or even death. Studies have shown that staff fatigue leads to a higher number of medical errors. Critical care nurses who were tired were more likely to experience “decision regret,” the concern that they might have made a mistake in caring for a patient.
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.
Many other states, including Oregon and California, protect patient safety by requiring their state’s hospitals to provide uninterrupted breaks and prohibit mandatory overtime. Meanwhile, here in Washington, nurses and other front-line caregivers have successfully taken hospitals to court dozens of times for failing to protect patient safety with uninterrupted rest breaks.
Protecting and healing patients is why I became a surgical technician. After watching many of my close relatives succumb to cancer and congestive heart failure, I dedicated my career to helping others who need life-saving surgeries. There’s nothing like knowing your patients are now cancer free or able to live better, fuller lives after surgery.
There’s also nothing like fainting during surgery. That’s what happened when I was not able to get a break to take my own medication during a long surgery for a patient’s cranial tumor. Luckily, the patient was not impacted when I lost consciousness, but it made me worry for the thousands of patients whose nurses, technicians, and respiratory therapists are also not able to take care of their own biological needs during an uninterrupted break.
I support Rep. Marcus Riccelli’s proposal (SHB 1155) to protect patient safety by requiring hospitals to provide registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants and hospital technicians with uninterrupted breaks during their long shifts of 10, 12, or more hours. The legislation also closes a loophole to stop hospitals from abusing mandatory overtime.
Last month the House passed (63-34) Riccelli’s bill with bipartisan support from Spokane area Representatives Mike Volz (R-LD6), Jenny Graham (R-LD6), and Timm Ormsby (D-LD3).
Now the Washington State Hospital Association’s lobbyists are trying to block Riccelli’s bill, arguing that it costs too much to properly staff hospitals to protect patient safety. They don’t seem to recognize that avoidable medical errors cost an estimated $19.5 billion annually in the U.S., including medical expenses, mortality and loss of productivity. Plus, understaffing costs more in the long run – studies show that fatigue is a leading cause of nurse burnout and turnover, and that it can cost up to $58,000 to recruit and train a new nurse.
Just over the border in Oregon, hospitals owned by the same groups are doing just fine while guaranteeing their staff needed rest breaks during long shifts. It’s time for Washington’s state senators to follow Oregon’s lead and pass patient safety protections now.
Dalynn Parrish is a Neurosurgery Surgical Technician at Sacred Heart Medical Center, and a member of UFCW 21.
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