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Nurses want lower patient ratios sooner

Ben Godar

Nurse-to-patient ratios proposed by the state Department of Health

Services will allow nurses to focus on fewer patients, but local

nurses and union representatives say the changes won’t take place

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soon enough.

The proposed ratios, the first state-mandated standards of their

kind in the nation, would set caps for the number of patients one

nurse can handle in a variety of different areas. For example, a

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nurse in a medical surgical unit could only handle up to six patients

at a time.

While many of the caps will go into effect Jan. 1, 2004, some will

not begin until 2008. Representatives of Service Employees

International Union, the largest nurses’ union in the country, say

the changes need to be implemented sooner.

“We can’t let patients wait until 2008 to have safe care,”

spokeswoman Livia Gershon said.

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Nora Santos, a registered nurse at Providence St. Joseph Medical

Center, said lower ratios are needed in part because patients are

requiring more care. With so many medical procedures done on an

outpatient basis, Santos, a 14-year nursing veteran, said those who

are checked into the hospital need more attention.

“Patients are sicker now,” she said. “They used to be walking and

talking, but now when they come to the hospital, they are very

complicated cases.”

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Santos works in the telemetry unit, where patients are on heart

monitors. She handles about five to six patients at a time; that

number would be limited to five as of Jan. 1. However, the ratio

won’t be reduced to 1-to-4 until 2008.

State officials are accepting public comment on the proposed

ratios through July 17, and union officials have encouraged their

members to send postcards demanding the caps come sooner, and in some

cases be reduced even further.

The union is also backing a bill in the state assembly that would

fine hospitals that violate the standards $50 per bed per day, and

would allow unannounced inspections of facilities, Gershon said.

“In addition to putting in these new standards, it’s important to

make sure they’re enforced,” she said.

If the DHS does not adjust its proposed ratios, Gershon said union

officials might attempt to achieve the goal through the collective

bargaining process with individual hospitals.

St. Joseph spokesman Dan Boyle said the hospital will comply with

the new standards, but since bargaining sessions have not begun, he

would not speculate whether or not the hospital would dip below the

mandated ratios.

The hospital already meets or exceeds existing recommended ratios,

and Boyle said it would not be difficult to move into compliance with

the new standards.

“It’s not a die-hard standard right now, but we’re very close to

those ratios,” he said.


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