Tragedy into Policy: A Hepatitis C Outbreak and a Study of Nevada RNs Lead to New Protections for WhistleblowersJune 7, 2011
By Sylvia Foley, AJN senior editor
In 2008, more than 62,000 people who had undergone procedures at one of two southern Nevada endoscopy clinics were notified that “they might have been exposed to bloodborne pathogens, including hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus (HCV), and HIV, as a result of unsafe injection practices.” As author Lisa Black reports in this month’s CE–Original Research feature, a subsequent investigation by federal and state agencies found multiple breaches of infection control protocols. Indeed, 115 patients were found to be “either certainly or presumptively infected” with HCV through the reuse of contaminated medication vials.
Especially distressing was strong anecdotal evidence that because of a general fear of workplace retaliation, staff at the two clinics had often failed to report unsafe patient care conditions. At the request of the Nevada legislature, a study was conducted to examine Nevada RNs’ experiences with workplace attitudes toward patient advocacy activities. Black was the principal investigator.
The researchers developed a questionnaire and tested its validity and reliability. Then they sent it to a random sample of 1,725 Nevada RNs; 564 RNs (33%) responded. Among the key findings:
- 34% of respondents indicated that they’d been aware of a patient care condition that could have caused harm to a patient, yet had not reported it
- the most common reasons given for nonreporting included fears of workplace retaliation (44%) and a belief that nothing would come of reports that were made (38%)
The findings of this study illustrate the importance of a workplace culture based on openness, not fear. . . . That more than a third of RNs in our study indicated that they’d been aware of a situation that might have harmed a patient and had not reported it is of grave concern and must be addressed.
The study findings were presented to the Nevada legislature and, with the support of the Nevada Nurses Association, the Nevada State Board of Nursing, and local labor unions, a whistleblower protection statute (AB10) was signed into law in May, 2009. As Black notes, this marks a positive shift in health care policy. Among other things, the bill
provides the means for supporting nurses in a workplace environment that encourages “good faith” reporting of patient safety concerns; it also supports the employers’ need to protect patients by retaining the means by which employers can discipline nurses whose actions pose a threat to patient safety.
You might also check out editor-in-chief Shawn Kennedy’s June editorial on the broader ramifications of the case of Texas RN whistleblowers Vicki Galle and Anne Mitchell. A collection of posts related to whistleblowing can be found here.