The UW has been negotiating its contract with three medical centers — Harborview Medical Center, Valley Medical Center, and Northwest Hospital & Medical Center — since its first proposal in April. Medical staff in each hospital, however, see real on-the-ground issues within, and missing from, the contract.
“We’re always struggling to find staff to take care of patients,” said Chris Lopez, a nurse at Valley Medical. “Valley’s motto is — at least it used to be — was ‘patient safety is our number one priority.’”
Lopez feels being understaffed has direct consequences for patients because there aren’t enough employees to see the number of people coming in.
During the Board of Regents’ meeting Nov. 12, Lopez was one of many medical staff who showed up to express these concerns.
“We need to get our patients the proper care all the time and very quickly because time matters,” he said at the meeting. “We don’t want our patients to hit the call light and have nobody show up.”
According to Lopez, Valley Medical currently sends out “robo-voicemails,” texts, and emails to staff every half hour or hour, trying to get people to come to work. He isn’t talking about just people who have the day off either; he’s talking about staff that are already at work but are asked to stay.
Lopez isn’t the only one feeling the strain. Staff at other hospitals under the UW medical contract are also having these issues.
Vanessa Patricelli from Harborview also voiced her concerns during the public comments section, referencing what it was like to be understaffed during the accident caused by a Ride the Ducks tour bus on Aurora two months ago.
“If the hospital really wants to be prepared for any emergency, then they should be staffed right from the start,” Patricelli said. “We need to see better from UW Medicine, and we’re calling on [the Board of Regents’] leadership.”
A lot of Patricelli’s experience comes specifically from nursing, but she wanted to be clear that the contract itself affects more than just the nursing staff at her hospital.
“There are two main nursing issues,” she said. “One is break release. The second is mandatory call for nurses.”
Lopez also expressed similar concerns for Valley. A break release is when a couple nurses come in for eight hours with the sole job of taking over for one nurse at a time. This way, nurses throughout a unit are able to get breaks to eat, recoup, and rest.
This break release concept was tested during a trial run in the last contract, according to Patricelli.
“There’s better outcomes on units with more nurses,” she said, “better retention, and better staff morale.”
Mandatory calls — the second main issue — are also something that was shared among staff across all three hospitals. This is a practice in which a nurse is mandated to take a call shift that is highly likely to be called, and essentially makes them work around the clock.
Patricelli said she wouldn’t want a tired nurse taking care of her during a time when she couldn’t do anything to take care of herself.
“Not only is it not safe for the patients who are going to be potentially operated on to have tired, overworked staff taking care of them,” she said, “it’s not good for retention. They’re going to burn nurses like crazy.”
This makes keeping highly qualified staff extremely difficult, according to Tina Carpenter from Northwest. She also stated Northwest is having the same overworked staff issues as Harborview and Valley.
“Lots of my coworkers have approached me saying they’re looking for other jobs,” Carpenter said. “When we lose that level of experience, our patients feel that impact.”
Carpenter said being a part of medical staff takes a lot of experience. Not only is schooling demanding, but it takes years to feel comfortable handling a high workload. She said that patients come to Northwest seeing the UW signs and expecting high quality care, but Northwest UW is falling short of these standards.
“In addition to just struggling with quality staff, and high turnover rates, we have a double standard,” she said. “It says ‘UW Med’ on the signs and the doors, but our managers and executives receive the benefits and wages, but we do not.”
Carpenter was referencing the contract’s low retirement contributions, and its high health care premium for medical staff.
Lopez explained that Valley is a community-based hospital. But they are all funded by the community, taxpayers, levies, and public money.
“We’re there for the public, that’s why we all work here, we’re here to take care of people,” he said.
But only one person can take care of so many people.
“Our whole goal of the contract is to provide a working environment that is a place where people will want to work so we can take care of all the patients,” Patricelli said. “We know that just because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t mean the UW Med is going to let us do that.”
Currently, the UW is in the middle of contract negotiations with its three sister hospitals. Valley and Northwest’s most recent negotiations happened Dec. 2, and Harborview is to have more negotiations Friday, Dec. 4.
“We’re telling you now that we need the resources to do our job, and without them we cannot be successful no matter how hard we work,” Lopez said. “UW Med has lost its way, and they are not leading with patient-centered care.”
Norm Arkans, the UW’s associate vice president of media relations and communications, informed The Daily in an email that the UW is still bargaining with the union and they have not yet reached an agreement.
“We typically do not comment about ongoing negotiations, preferring for the discussions to occur at the bargaining table rather than anywhere else,” Arkans said. “We are engaged in bargaining, and are committed to that process.”