Nursing strikes can cause harm well beyond labor relations

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hen officials at Tufts Medical Center in Boston refused to allow nurses just off of a one-day strike return to their jobs, the footage spread across TV news programs and social media. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a former labor leader, spoke in favor of the striking nurses and the hospital found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight.

About 1,200 nurses went on a one-day strike after their union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and Tufts couldn’t come to a new contract agreement after more than a year of negotiations. Tufts, in turn, locked out the nurses when they attempted to return to work the next day.

Officials said the lockout was required because they needed to give at least five-day contracts to 320 temporary nurses brought in to fill the gap. The nurses are back on the job now without a new contract, but the strike and subsequent lockout got the public’s attention.

Hospital strikes aren’t that common — usually, the sides agree to a new contract. Strikes or threatened strikes in recent years have typically involved conflicts over pay, benefits and staff workloads.

When strikes do happen, however, they can hurt a hospital’s reputation, finances and patient care.

Strike’s effect on patient safety

study on nurses’ strikes in New York found that labor actions have a temporary negative effect on a hospital’s patient safety.

Study authors Jonathan Gruber and Samuel A. Kleiner found that nurses’ strikes increased in-patient mortality by 18.3% and 30-day readmission by 5.7% for patients admitted during the strike. Patients admitted during a strike got a lower quality of care, they wrote.

“We show that this deterioration in outcomes occurs only for those patients admitted during a strike, and not for those admitted to the same hospitals before or after a strike. And we find that these changes in outcomes are not associated with any meaningful change in the composition of, or the treatment intensity for, patients admitted during a strike,” they said.

They said a possible reason for the lower quality is fewer major procedures performed during a strike, which could lead partially to diminished outcomes. The study authors found that patients that need the most nursing care are the ones who make out worst during strikes.

“We find that patients with particularly nursing-intensive conditions are more susceptible to these strike effects, and that hospitals hiring replacement workers perform no better during these strikes than those that do not hire substitute employees,” they wrote.

Allina Health’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis faced a patient safety issue during a strike last year that resulted in the CMS placing the hospital in “immediate jeopardy” status after a medication error. A replacement nurse administered adrenaline to an asthmatic patient through an IV rather than into the patient’s muscle. The patient, who was in the emergency room (ER), wound up in intensive care for three days because of the error. Allina said the error was not the nurse’s fault, but was the result of a communication problem.

The CMS accepted the hospital plan of correction, which included having a nurse observer when needed and retraining ER staff to repeat back verbal orders.

A strike’s financial impact

Hospitals also take a financial hit during strikes. Even the threat of a one- or two-day nurse strike can cost a hospital millions.

Bringing in hundreds or thousands of temporary nurses from across the country is costly for hospitals. They need to advertise the positions, pay for travel and often give bonuses to lure temporary nurses.

The most expensive recent nurse strike was when about 4,800 nurses went on strike at Allina Health in Minnesota two times last year. The two strikes of seven days and 41 days cost the health system $104 million. The hospital also saw a $67.74 million operating loss during the quarter of those strikes.

To find temporary replacements, Allina needed to include enticing offers, such as free travel and a $400 bonus to temporary nurses.

Even the threat of a strike can cost millions. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston spent more than $8 million and lost $16 million in revenuepreparing for a strike in 2016. The 3,300-nurse union threatened to walk out for a day and much like Tufts Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s said the hospital would lock out nurses for four additional days if nurses took action.

At that time, Dr. Ron Walls, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the hospital spent more than $5 million on contracting with the U.S. Nursing Corp. to bring on 700 temporary nurses licensed in Massachusetts. The hospital also planned to cut capacity to 60% during the possible strike and moved hundreds of patients to other hospitals. They also canceled procedures and appointments in preparation of a strike.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association and Brigham & Women’s were able to reach a three-year agreement before a strike, but the damage was already done to the hospital’s finances.

Richard L. Gundling, senior vice president of healthcare financial practices at Healthcare Financial Management Association, told Healthcare Dive that healthcare organizations need to plan for business continuity in case of an event, such as a labor strike, natural disaster or cyberattack.

“Business continuity is directly related to the CFO’s responsibility for maintaining business functions. The plan should include having business continuity insurance in place to replace the loss associated with diminished revenue and increased expenses during the event,” Gundling said.

These plans should provide adequate staffing, training, materials, supplies, equipment and communications in case of a strike. Hospitals should also keep payers, financial agencies and other important stakeholders informed of potential issues.

“It’s also key to keep financial stakeholders well informed; this includes insurance companies, bond rating agencies, banks, other investors, suppliers and Medicare/Medicaid contractors,” he said.

“Business continuity is directly related to the CFO’s responsibility for maintaining business functions. The plan should include having business continuity insurance in place to replace the loss associated with diminished revenue and increased expenses during the event.”

Richard Gundling

Senior vice president of healthcare financial practices, Healthcare Financial Management Association

Impact to a hospital’s reputation

Hospital strikes, particularly nurses’ strikes, can also wreak havoc on a hospital’s reputation. Nurses are a beloved profession. They work hard, often long hours and don’t make a fortune doing it. The median registered nurses’ salary is about $70,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nurses’ contract disputes involving staffing levels are a sticky situation for hospitals. Nurses will almost always win the PR battle against hospital executives.

If a hospital can’t avoid a strike, Seitel said two keys for the organization are telling the truth and not being passive about untrue statements from the other side. They don’t want to be adversarial and escalate the situation, but go with a more measured approach.

Fraser Seitel, president of Emerald Partners, a communications management consulting company, told Healthcare Dive there are two ways that hospital leadership can avoid a strike.

“The best way to prevent a strike is by the management of the hospital having a robust communications program with the staff of the hospital as well as keeping competitive in terms of salaries and benefits,” said Seitel, who has helped hospitals during times of labor strife.

Seitel said labor issues often crop up when management isn’t communicative. Communication, transparency and competitive compensation are the best preventative medicine for a strike, he said.

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