Magazine article The American Prospect

Heal, Don't Harm. (Where We Stand: A Commentary on Public Education and Other Critical Issues)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Heal, Don't Harm. (Where We Stand: A Commentary on Public Education and Other Critical Issues)

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago, a healthy young man who was donating a part of his liver to save his brother's life, died in one of the country's most prestigious teaching hospitals--a world-class organ transplant facility. How could this happen? Too few health professionals caring for too many patients.

This kind of tragedy is becoming all too commonplace in healthcare institutions whose purpose is to heal but whose policies too often cause harm.

A frenzy of mergers, acquisitions and consolidations, a lack of oversight and regulation, a focus on competition and profits rather than on patients and quality care, have resulted in the sad state of affairs where families fear the hospital. We suffer more than the usual anxiety when we take our loved ones to what should be--and once was--a zone of comfort and relief.

Anyone who has spent time in a hospital these days can tell you: Nurses and other health professionals are overworked and overtired. Dangerously low staffing levels at many hospitals lead to mandatory overtime and exhausted workers. In addition, many procedures once performed by nurses are now being turned over to staff never trained to assume such roles.

It's no wonder that medical errors are on the rise. Dedicated healthcare workers feel beaten down, and many are fleeing the profession in droves. Those remaining are left with even heavier workloads and unsafe working conditions. It's a vicious cycle. Hospitals and medical facilities have set the staffing levels so low and made the working conditions so intolerable that trained and talented professionals are seeking other careers--just as teachers and prospective teachers are leaving or deciding not to pursue their chosen profession. Serious shortages in both fields pose a grave national crisis.

Exhausted nurses

Americans can be proud of our many talented healthcare workers. Nurses, technicians and aides, who work closely with patients, are an integral part of a quality healthcare system. They can help reduce medical errors in hospitals, which, according to an authoritative report from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, lead to at least 98,000 preventable deaths a year. But despite their hard work and commitment, too many healthcare professionals are over-burdened, and too many patients are increasingly at risk.

Mandatory overtime is a particularly dangerous practice because it sends exhausted nurses back onto the floor and undermines hospitals' efforts to deliver high-quality patient care. As one RN puts it: "When I've been up for 24 hours, my judgment gets a little shaky--and so do my hands. …

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