NEW YORK NURSE: March 2010
by Karen A. Ballard, MA, RN, FAAN, President
ANA’s Code of Ethics for Nurses states in Provision 3 that “the nurse promotes, advocates for, and strives to protect the health, safety, and rights of the patients.” As nurses, we all know this includes acting on the questionable practice by “any member of the health care team or the health care system or any action on the part of others that places the rights or best interests of the patient in jeopardy.” It can be incompetent, unethical, illegal, or impaired practice that the nurse has identified.
In West Texas recently, two nurses, Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, identified to the Texas Medical Board six examples of improper practice by a physician. The physician involved had been previously disciplined and fined by the Texas Medical Board and, as a result of those charges, had surrendered his other license to practice in New York.
The nurses had initially reported their concerns to the administration of their small hospital, but were not satisfied with the lack of response. It was only then that they complained to the state board. The nurses were careful not to reveal any confidential information, only sufficient coding data to support a meaningful investigation.
When the physician was notified that he was under investigation, he complained to his friend – the local sheriff – that he was being harassed. The sheriff discovered the identities of the nurses and notified the hospital administration, resulting in the firing of the nurses. He also notified his friend — the local county prosecutor – resulting in the filing of criminal charges. So much for confidential reporting!
The nurses were charged with misuse of official information, a felony in Texas carrying a 10-year maximum sentence. The prosecutor claimed that the nurses had reported the physician in “bad faith” and were “bad-mouthing him.”
The nurses and their supporters did not give up, even with the loss of income, the animosity of town residents and the attendant emotional stress. The Texas Nurses Association rallied nurses locally and nationally and established a legal defense fund. Visit www.texasnurses.org for more information.
Just prior to trial, the charges were dropped against Vickilyn. During the trial, a nurse practitioner and licensed vocational nurse, who has also filed complaints against the physician, spoke in defense of Mitchell, stating that her concern was for the safety of the patients and their right to a standard of care. The jurors concurred, and after a four-day trial, found Anne “not guilty.” Some jurors subsequently hugged the nurses and told them that it was clear to them that the charges were bogus. Note to prosecutors: the Gallup Poll year after year finds nurses the most trusted professionals by the public.
What these nurses did could not have been easy, but they did prevail. The need for sufficient whistleblower protections is critical in order to support nurses and other healthcare professionals in exercising their ethical responsibilities. It is why NYSNA lobbied many years for the law passed in 2002 that provides unique whistleblower protections for healthcare workers who face retaliation for addressing issues that affect patient safety and quality of care.
Thank you, Anne and Vickilyn, on behalf of nurses, nursing and the nation’s patients for knowing that ethics is not just a concept, but integral to our professional practice.