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Nurses call for higher staffing levels

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staffBy Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Wednesday December 12, 2001

Demonstration urges state to better staff-to-patient ratios 


A registered nurse at Alta Bates/Summit Medical Center, Emmet Curry says he sometimes fears for the safety of his patients when staffing is low. 

Curry joined colleagues from the California Nurses Association Tuesday outside Alta Bates on Ashby Avenue – and others at 100 hospitals around the state – to educate the public on what CNA says is a need for higher staff-to-patient ratios. 

The CNA already received a part of what it wanted: AB 394.  

Approved by the legislature and signed by the governor more than a year ago, the law calls for fixed staff-to-patient ratios – but those numbers have yet to be decided. 

By Jan. 1, the state will publish proposed ratios. A series of public hearings will follow during a span of 45 days and then the final ratios will be written into law. 

The mandatory ratios will be a first for this country, said Liz Jacobs, a registered nurse and communications specialist for the CNA.  

Jacobs said inadequate staffing and subsequent overwork are some of the main causes for nurses to leave the profession. 

Alta Bates spokesperson Carolyn Kemp argued that the staffing should be based on the need of the “acuity of the patient,” rather than fixed by category (critical care, burn, operating room). 

Jacobs pointed out that today’s patients are all in need of more care than in the past because they are sicker. In the past, when patients were not removed early from hospitals by insurance companies, there was a period of time when nursing levels could safely decrease, she said. But now, she said, everyone in the hospital needs a more intense level of care. 

Kemp argued that the low level of staffing is a function of a scarcity of nurses.  

“No matter what the ratios (in the law) are, we can’t do it,” Kemp said. “There is a nursing shortage.” 

But Jacobs pointed to “stressful conditions” as the underlying reason for the shortage. 

“Sometimes you’re by yourself,” said RN Curry, “Patients are all in bed, they have to have baths, you have to feed them and turn them every two hours.”  

Then there’s charting each patient and “carrying out the doctors’ orders.” 

Three of Curry’s colleagues, also Alta Bates’ nurses, stood around him outside the hospital and chimed in.  

“I didn’t take lunch today,” said Robert Abelon.  

Cindy Kleinsasser did: “I sit and eat and chart,” she said of her lunch breaks.  

“That’s what I do,” agreed Maryanne Sanchez.  

Curry said the nurses are lucky if they get away from the nurses station at all.  

“They call us (when we are) in the bathroom,” Sanchez added. 

But the push for a higher staff-to-patient ratio is not only to reduce the nurses’ stress, it’s for patients, says CNA President Kay McVay, also a registered nurse.  

When you’re sick and in bed “you’re there at the mercy of anything going on,” she said, explaining why the nurses’ goal for the day was to educate the public about the situation. 

Nurse Robert Abelon said he no longer has the time to educate patients about their illness and home care before they leave. This, combined with too-short hospital stays, means a patient ends up coming back to the hospital more frequently. 

Kemp said the CNA’s argument that the staffing ratios are unsafe is “absolutely untrue. The hospital does not want to do anything unsafe for its patients,” she said. 

Moreover, she contended that the CNA was acting prematurely.  

“The wisest thing is to wait and see what (the rules) propose. No one knows what they will be.”