Group of Johns Hopkins nurses say hospital fails to address patient care concerns

A group of Johns Hopkins Hospital nurses on Saturday slammed the renowned Baltimore institution, saying it fosters poor working conditions for those in their ranks and by doing so, compromises patient care.

The nurses — who are in the midst of a contentious campaign to unionize — presented a trio of scathing reports during a town hall meeting at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Each described a version of Johns Hopkins that falls short of its mission.

More than 100 people, including Rep. Elijah Cummings and a handful of local politicians, packed the town hall event to demand better from the storied hospital in East Baltimore.

“This hospital with its vast resources could be an example to follow, but the reality within Hopkins is a far cry from the reputation Hopkins enjoys,” said nurse Kate Phillips. “Our current working conditions prevent us from providing the best care possible.”

A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman responded to the claims by emphasizing that safety is the hospital’s first priority for patients, providers and staff.

“The Johns Hopkins Hospital, a not-for-profit hospital providing care for a large number of underserved residents, consistently earns recognition as one of the nation’s best hospitals for patient safety and care,” Kim Hoppe said in an emailed statement. “Our longstanding culture of collaboration and open communication with all of our employees aims directly at continuously improving and providing the highest quality of care. Our nurses are critical to providing this world-class care to our patients and their families, and we deeply respect their contributions to our organization.”

Still, the Hopkins nurses said their ranks are plagued by high turnover rates, leading to a dearth of experienced caregivers. They said there often aren’t enough nurses to properly attend to patients’ needs, and some patients are left in vulnerable positions. On top of that, they said, there is no system set up to ensure nurses are given adequate break relief.

“These conditions not only contribute to burnout and turnover, but every increase in the number of patients you give to a nurse leads to negative patient care outcomes,” said veteran nurse Gail Levin.

National Nurses United — the union the Hopkins group is seeking to join — published survey results, broken down by unit, showing that the majority of Hopkins nurses who responded felt at risk of injury at work sometimes. Of the 175 respondents, 37 percent said they experienced workplace violence in the past year and roughly half said their safety concerns were ignored.

The nurses said they also frequently run into supply shortages and problems. Survey respondents who work in the Comprehensive Transplant Unit, where nurses care for patients with a host of communicable diseases, said their gloves are prone to ripping.

“At a world-class institution like Johns Hopkins, nurses’ gloves should not be breaking,” longtime nurse Suzanne Levitch said.

The conditions they described are part of what pushed them toward unionizing.

“We need a seat at table to remind management that patients are more important than profits,” Levitch said.

Other nurses who are against the union push took issue with the data and claims presented Saturday. The survey results discussed at the town hall represent just a small portion of the more than 3,000 nurses who work there.

Marybeth Vidunas has spent more than two decades working at Hopkins, and said she feels like the union is misrepresenting conditions at the hospital.

“I have never felt unsafe. I feel that we are staffed appropriately. We’re supported really well,” Vidunas, a pediatric nurse educator, said. “I feel like we can always go to nursing leadership and talk about what our needs are. I've never felt like nobody listened to us when we talked.”

Since the group of nurses began their unionization effort last summer, some say, they’ve faced resistance. The National Labor Relations Board has found evidence Hopkins officials are restricting the rights of nurses trying to unionize.

“We deeply respect [nurses]’ … rights as employees including their right to support or oppose a union,” Hoppe said in a statement last month. However, “We believe the union’s charges lack merit, and we stand by our workplace practices.”

A group of elected officials at Saturday’s event decried any alleged union-busting tactics.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed plans to introduce a resolution Monday calling on the hospital to “adopt a policy of neutrality and non-interference relating to the ongoing unionization efforts of registered nurses.”

Cummings, who has often been treated as a patient at Hopkins, said during the town hall that he has warned hospital officials not to go against the democratic process. He compared any attempts to interfere in the nurses’ unionization efforts with voter suppression.

A group of union researchers also presented an analysis of Johns Hopkins’ finances, which they say shows that the hospital should be spending more money and resources to help the impoverished neighborhoods that surround it.

Hoppe said the hospital is proud of its efforts to help Baltimore communities thrive.

“Johns Hopkins supports the community in hundreds of ways,” she said, “including scholarships for Baltimore’s students, hiring employees from economically challenged neighborhoods, contracting with local businesses, community development, community health initiatives, revitalization programs and helping citizens re-enter the workforce after incarceration.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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