Nurse strikes are sometimes necessary to ensure that the heart and soul of our healthcare system are being treated fairly. But when nurses strike, quality of patient care declines. What’s the solution?
Recent ‘Strike Wave’ in the U.S.
It seems there has been a recent wave of strikes around the United States. For the second time in three months, nurses at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center walked off the job. Their four-day strike, which began June 23, followed a weeklong strike in March.
There’s also that sigh of relief everyone is breathing since Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) averted a 3,300-nurse walkout. If a deal between the nurses union and the hospital were not met, it would have been BWH’s first strike ever, and the first strike in Boston in 30 years.
And of course, we can’t forget to mention the nearly 5,000 nurses in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that ended their weeklong strike this week. Though the strike is now over and nurses have returned to the five hospitals in the Twin Cities area, there is still no agreement between the nurses union and Allina Health regarding their healthcare plans.
The Right to Strike
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) generally gives American workers the right to strike, but in certain industries, that right can be restricted or taken away under federal or state law. For example, U.S. government employees, railroad and airline employees, and in some states, police officers and firefighters are all prohibited from striking.
Even though the NLRA was enacted in 1935, hospitals still could not unionize until 1974, nearly 30 years later.
Striking within the healthcare industry is a highly controversial subject. The issue isn’t that people think that health care workers do no deserve to have a voice in their employment. The issue is that health care employees provide an essential public service, and when nurses strike, they could be putting patient health in jeopardy.
Striking Out: The Cost of Nurse Strikes
If you have done any research on health care strikes and patient care effects, you probably know that when physicians strike, in-hospital mortality stays at the same level or decreases. This is the complete opposite effect when it comes to nurses.
The reason why hospitals had to wait so long to be allowed to unionize is because the government had a concern about strikes jeopardizing patient health. They may have been on to something because an MIT study showed that there is a decline in quality of patient care when nurses go on strike.
The study found that in-hospital mortality increases by 19.4% and 30-day readmissions increase by 6.5% during nurse strikes. The increases occurred whether or not the hospital hired replacement nurses during the strike, and intensive care patients were the most affected.
The report from MIT suggests that “hospitals functioning during nurses’ strikes are doing so at a lower quality of care.
Other reports have claimed that none of these nurse strikes are comparable to study results because the strikes in the MIT study lasted on an average of a month. But with Allina Health and the Minnesota Nurses Association still not coming to an agreement, more strikes may inevitable, which will lead to a decrease in the quality of patient care.
The Heart and Soul of Healthcare
Why is it that when nurses, who have less training than physicians, go on strike, the quality of patient care declines while it remains the same for doctors?
Nurses are a critical part of how a hospital of healthcare facility functions. Without nurses, hospitals cannot operate. Nurses are viewed as the most important part of the healing process, even more so than attending physicians, according to patients.
Nurses are like a hospital surveillance system. Like the cat in a nursing that can somehow tell when the next person is passing, nurses can detect and intervene for deteriorating patients. Without nurses there to help the masses, the world’s healthcare system would be in big trouble.
It seems that nursing union members and hospital employees may not always see eye-to-eye, but is there another solution instead of striking? How do we find the balance without disrupting the quality of care for our most vulnerable?
It seems that only time will tell.