Boston nurses took to the streets last week to protest an upcoming layoff at Boston Medical Center and overworked staff at Tufts Medical Center. As tensions boiled between broke hospitals and exhausted workers, nurses say they may strike, marking the first in 20 years.

Over 250 nurses gathered in front of the Tufts Medical Center on Wednesday May 16th with signs that read “Safe Staffing,” and “Mandatory Overtime is Unhealthy.” Barbara Tiller, co-director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), dropped off her petition of demands to the hospital board before leading the crowd to the streets, where they chanted some of those demands to honking cars and passers-by.

Nurses have requested that their contracts eliminate mandatory overtime and maintain a higher nurse-to-patient ratio. In negotiations with Tufts, they refused a proposal to increase their salary by 3 percent, asking instead to replenish their ranks. The MNA represents about 600 nurses at Boston Medical Center and about 1,200 at Tufts.

“At the end of the day,” Tiller says, “if a patient needs something and we can’t provide it, then we’re harming people.”

David Schildmeier, director of public communications for the MNA, says that since January 2010, nurses have been forced to “float” to units where they have little expertise, turning Tufts from one of the top providers of nursing care to the worst.

“What they’re trying to do is treat nurses like widgets in a factory, move them wherever they’re needed, as if they’re disposable parts,” he says. “But nursing’s very specialized. It’s as specialized as medicine.”

Many say a nursing strike may be the next step. Donna Dudik, an RN at the Boston Medical Center and a union co-director, calls it “a real possibility.”

“We’re not out here to make our lives easy,” she says. “People are dying. People are getting pneumonia, they’re having post-op infections, they’re not being rescued.”

According to WBUR’s health blog Commonhealth, Tufts lags behind other teaching hospitals in hours of nurse care per patient. And nurses say they are assigned up to five patients during the day and seven at night.

But Julie Jette, spokesperson for Tufts, says those figures are not the only relevant numbers.

She cites third-party research that shows intravenous infections have dropped 80 percent since 2009, fall rates have dropped 26 percent and the rate of pressure ulcers or “bed sores” has been reduced 65 percent since mid-2010.

“All of these metrics are what is known as ‘nurse-sensitive’ measures, meaning the quality of nursing care has a direct impact on them,” she said via email to the Dig.

She added that no staff—including nurses—have been let go, and that she remains hopeful that Tufts will avoid cuts.

Some nurses counter that while no one has been laid off, the hospital is slow to fill vacancies.

“People are leaving, and they’re not replacing them,” Tiller says.

But while hospitals across the Hub are suffering diminished revenue, Jette says that last year Tufts has restructured its care delivery model to maximize efficiency. This move, she says, anticipates legislation filed by Gov. Patrick last month that will overhaul the way healthcare is delivered and paid for to center on patients, rather than individual services.


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