By Lindsey Kirsch, BSN, RN
When I learned recently that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer, I frankly was not surprised. As a pediatric emergency room nurse, I know that healthcare professionals are routinely pushed to our physical and intellectual limits, causing extreme fatigue, reducing mental acuity and putting patient safety at risk. That is why nurses and caregivers are calling on the Washington State legislature to pass an urgently needed bill that protects rest breaks for hospital staff and stops employers from abusing mandatory overtime.
I have a deep passion for taking care of kids, and I come into work every day with the goal of promoting the health, safety and well-being of my patients. But it is extremely difficult to do my best when I am utterly drained and exhausted. In my entire 12 years as a nurse, I have never had a single day in which I have taken both of my rest breaks. Some days, I can go up to six hours straight without a drink of water or going to the bathroom. This kind of relentless, uninterrupted pace can have very real negative consequences for our patients.
According to the Journal of Patient Safety, there are an average of 400,000 patient deaths each year across our country from avoidable medical errors, and up to 20 times more incidents of serious harm. Multiple studies have shown that staff fatigue leads to significant increases in medical errors.
A good example of an area ripe for mistakes is the administering of medications. In a hospital setting, doctors order medications and then the orders are sent to the pharmacy for approval. Nurses are the last line of defense for our patients, and often it is up to us to catch an error. I have seen firsthand the wrong medication prescribed, doses being off by 100-fold, and critical medications not being prescribed at all.
Catching these errors can be a matter of life and death, and nurses need to be constantly on our toes, closely reviewing all the notes for every patient. But when we go for long periods without breaks, our ability to stay focused and alert is severely diminished.
Medical errors are not only dangerous, they are also extremely costly for patients and taxpayers. Avoidable errors cost over $19 billion annually, and 78 percent of the costs of injuries are passed on to consumers.
For the past five years, patient advocates, together with our state’s largest unions of nurses and healthcare workers – SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, UFCW Local 21 and my union, the Washington State Nurses Association – have been trying to pass legislation which would address hospital staff fatigue. Now, that legislation is closer to becoming law than ever before.
SHB 1155 passed the House of Representatives in a bipartisan vote, and is currently before the state Senate. The bill would require uninterrupted rest and meal breaks for nurses, nursing assistants and technical staff, and ban the abuse of mandatory overtime. The legislation includes reasonable exceptions for emergencies and cases in which the quality of patient care could be impacted.
When you, your child, spouse, parent, grandparent or other loved one are in the hospital, you do not want your nurse to be thinking “I wish I could get off my feet for a few minutes, get a snack or go to the bathroom.” Your nurses and healthcare professionals should be 100 percent focused on giving you the highest quality care possible.
Our state legislators hold the safety of my young patients in their hands. I urge them to vote yes on SHB 1155.
Lindsey Kirsch lives in Lake Forest Park and has been a pediatric emergency room nurse for the past 12 years.