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Nurses Under Fire: Cleared in Texas, Embattled in California

February 16, 2010

By Shawn Kennedy, interim editor-in-chief

By now you’ve probably heard that last Thursday Anne Mitchell, the Texas nurse who found herself fired from her job and on trial after reporting a physician for what she felt was poor medical practice (see our report in the October 2009 issue) was found not guilty (her colleague, Vicki Galle, had her case dismissed prior to trial). It only took the jury about an hour to exonerate Mitchell of criminal charges and uphold her right to advocate for patients. (Day-by-day reports from the trial were made available on the Texas Nurses Association  (TNA) Web site.)

The case garnered national attention—at its core was a nurse’s right (duty, really) to safeguard patients in her or his care. It seemed a no-brainer, and almost incredible that the case even came to trial. Last Friday, I spoke with TNA president Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, who agreed, saying she was surprised the case went forward, especially after the state medical board agreed that what the nurses did was appropriate. Sportsman said, “This is the role of nurses—it’s required that we report what we see to safeguard patients. This nurse was just doing her job, what she was supposed to do.”

Like nurses everywhere, Sportsman was “delighted and ecstatic” about the verdict. Sportsman noted a guilty verdict would have discouraged nurses and others from coming forward about poor care out of fear of losing their jobs and facing prosecution.  Perhaps more chilling would be the result that nurses would be powerless and without support to protect patients from unsafe care. (See JParadisi’s excellent piece on this on her blog.)

Nurses seem to be coming under fire lately—witness the lawsuit California anesthesiologists have filed against their governor. According to the petition (available on the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists’ Web site), the anesthesiologists charge that, in following Medicare policy allowing a state to “opt out” of the physician supervision requirement, the governor is acting outside of California law in allowing nurse anesthetists to practice without physician supervision. It’s another case that bears watching (and rallying!) by all nurses, not just CRNAs. Nurses have a right to practice within the scope allowed under the law and for which they are qualified; a challenge to one nursing group should be a challenge to all of us.

What’s your take on these issues? Will the Mitchell case (despite the verdict in her favor) discourage potential whistle-blowers among nurses? And should physician groups really be attempting to restrict nurses’ scope of practice?

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4 comments

  1. Some Nurses feel obligated to squeal on those with greater power. This should be handled within the hospital or directly Nurse to Physician. She was airing her dirty laundry to all those who are suspicious of the medical field. The governement is the last resort. Where is the loyalty; what if the Doc had been Muslem, the Nurse Christian or visa versa. This is not a new problem, disputes are common among all of us. The Docs and Nurses are shooting each other in the foot; we will all loose.

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  2. Nurses a have a moral duty to be advocates for patients and their communities. No nurse should be penalized for identying poor quality care practioners and practices. ‘Nursing comprimizes the largest single workforce in the health system(ANA)
    Therefore we have the opportunity to create safe, health care environments to the population served.
    Warmly
    Manuela

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  3. [...] Blowers & Patient Advocates: When the Nurse Stands Alone was mentioned by Shawn Kennedy on the AJN blog, Off the Charts.  I assumed the two events were connected. Imagine my surprise: they are not. The stats for [...]

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  4. Physicians should not be allowed to restrict nurse practitioner scopes of practice. We have shown time and time again that we give great care to our patients that has been backed by research over and over. I also think that nurses should continue to blow the whistle on poor quality health care and should not be in fear of losing their jobs and licenses if they do so.

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