Editor's Note: In September of this year, The Chicago Tribune ran a series on nursing and medical errors under attention-grabbing banners such as: "Nursing mistakes kill, injure thousands"; "Nursing accidents unleash silent killer"; and "Problem nurses escape punishment. " The nursing community reacted as it should to the distrust that this sort of media instills in our clients. Below is the response from one of our leaders, Nancy Dickenson-Hazard. In it, we see the skillful challenging of underlying assumptions and the capacity to see alternative perspectives in a way that can be heard and understood by her audience- all hallmarks of exquisite critical thinking.
To the Editor:
The Chicago Tribune is to be commended for its recent investigation of the threat to public safety posed by the breakdowns in our national health care system.
But the Tribune's articles, which also were published by numerous other newspapers, seem to place the blame for these problems squarely on the shoulders of nurses. This is unfortunate, and untrue.
Tragically, medical mistakes do happen. And tragically, patients sometimes are injured or die. But the bulk of medical errors today are due to unsafe systems, not individual incompetence.
Nurses go into the health care profession because they want to help people. Their patients' safety and well being is their primary concern and their sworn responsibility.
But nurses are doing their jobs today in a health care system stressed by years of downsizing and reorganizing. Standards on staffing numbers and required skill levels- put in place to protect the patient- are being sacrificed to the demand for greater and greater cost savings. The result is that nurses are working longer hours, caring for more patients, and receiving less training than ever before. I will never excuse a medical error. But in this environment, I understand why they occur.
There are many reasons for the health care system problems we have. Cuts in Medicaid reimbursements. Fewer young people entering the nursing and health professions. An increase in managed care programs. Employers demanding lower-cost health plans. Patients who don't seek medical treatment until they are acutely ill and in need of greater care.
These complex and interwoven problems require the attention of everyone with a stake in the health care field: administrators, physicians, nurses, policymakers, and the public. Shared accountability and a partnership dedicated to system improvements serve everyone. Blaming any one segment of the system solves nothing.
Nursing organizations across the country are committed to doing their part to improve health care by bringing more people to the profession and enhancing training for all nurses. For example, Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow, a coalition of 20 nursing groups, is working on a recruitment advertising campaign and other outreach programs to raise the profile of the profession. And the Nursing Practice and Education Consortium, a coalition of nine organizations, just drafted a plan to address proper nursing practice, training and regulation.
But these efforts represent only a small part of what must be done. If the Tribune's investigation spurs a broad-based effort to fix what's broken in our health care system, the newspaper will have done a true public service.
But if, instead, the result is a distrust or fear of nurses, then our already stressed health care system will be in even greater peril.