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Are hospital patients at greater risk during a nurses' strike?

KQED News, September 29, 2011

Last Saturday, Judith Ming, a 66-year-old patient at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, died due to an error committed by a replacement nurse. The nurse was on duty because the hospital, which had five-day contracts with substitutes for regular nurses on a one-day strike, locked out the regulars for an additional four days. Yesterday, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune reported learning that the patient was killed, in the Chron's account, "by a nutritional supplement that a replacement nurse mistakenly put into a catheter meant for delivering medicine to her bloodstream." The nurses cited the tragedy in calling for an end to the lockout when it was going on, citing patient safety. But recriminations aside, the death raises questions about the quality of hospital care during a strike. Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research published research on this issue. Written by Jonathan Gruber and Samuel A. Kleiner, the paper is called "Do Strikes Kill? Evidence From New York State." Not that traveling nurses cannot provide excellent care; any of those nurses who fill in during strikes are top-notch clinicians. But they're working in an unfamiliar setting, they often have never been in that hospital before, they don't know which doctors to ask about what. They don't' necessarily know where every single supply is kept. They might not understand the computerized medical record system well, or it might be one they've never worked with before.

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