How does nurses going on strike help patients?

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This is a guest post by Arlyn Owens, a young Sydney RN. Around the time of the NSWNMA strike in late July, Arlyn came across some questions from his friends on Facebook and wrote this piece in reply.

The first question: How does nurses going on strike help patients?

At the time, I guess it doesn’t.

When bus drivers go on strike, people are late for work and appointments. Nurses striking can be a far more serious action, for obvious reasons. And this is often the response that striking nurses get from politicians. They tell us to get back to work and dismiss it as “militant union action, selfish whingeing over nothing… blah blah blah”. These politicians don’t like unions because unions hold them accountable, so they try to pacify the union action by portraying us as wrong and misinformed.

                                                                    Arlyn Owens

Firstly, when nurses strike, we don’t completely vacate the wards. Some stay back at skeleton staffing levels (night shift numbers) and work their arses off so that patients have a basic level of safety.

Secondly, nurses take striking very seriously. They only do it over extremely important issues. They know how important their job is and they are pushing for that recognition. I know, the huge importance of nurses is pretty much a no brainer, right?! (Guess not, based on the government’s behaviour.)

Nurses’ working conditions have been proven to directly affect patient outcomes. In a nutshell, reduced nurse staffing = more unexpected deaths [see Nurse Uncut article below].

Due to reduced [non-ratios] staffing, many patients will only receive the bare minimum of required care. Forget about being truly holistic. Other factors such as levels of experience in the skill mix also affect this.

So, really, nurses shouldn’t have to strike. But it’s one of the last resorts (this Ratios campaign has been going very actively for over six months, with constant rejection by the government).

Nurses should be respected, for the obvious reasons (one of the world’s most trusted professions, I will add). But government always looks to make cuts and they just should not make them in the public health system. It’s merely refusing to help people who are sick.

It is a nurse’s professional responsibility (ie. in the professional codes that we work under) to advocate for our patients. They are under our care 24/7 – when conditions are changed that affect them, we have to fight to improve those conditions. Not only for ourselves.

So, in the (very) short term, striking can be dangerous. That is why nurses take it very seriously. But in the long term, it saves a lot of lives.

Another question: For patients and families, the possibility of nurses going on strike in their time of need would be scary. Can’t anything else be done?

That’s the problem, it is scary. And nurses just shouldn’t ever have to strike. But due to the minimum staffing levels left at work, risk is controlled for, as best as possible.

It’s one of those causes that affect more than just nurses. Yes, nurses are the ones that begin the action, but everyone should be involved.

Most unexpected errors and incidents occur when there is a failure in the system and most failures in the system occur when there are high levels of stress (eg. due to staff shortage, inappropriate time constraints, lack of experience, strung-out overworked staff, etc…)

I am a graduate nurse now, still fresh in the industry. I believed in all this ratios stuff as a student. But now that I see what it’s like to work in my professional capacity, I’ve really come to understand the importance of ratios. People need to experience it firsthand to really feel how important it is.

Previously on Nurse Uncut:

Why I’m taking industrial action – by a Sydney nurse

Ten good reasons nurses and midwives are striking next week

Safety in numbers – ratios around the world

Ratios not only save lives but money too

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