Should Nurses Blow the Whistle or Just Keep Quiet?

Carolyn Buppert, MSN, JD

Disclosures

June 24, 2014

In This Article
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Question

What should I do when I discover that something happening at my facility is a threat to patient safety?

Response from Carolyn Buppert, MSN, JD
Healthcare attorney

Confused? I'm Not Surprised

Apparently, a lot goes on in healthcare that makes nurses uncomfortable, because I am asked this question, in some form, frequently. The answer is complicated. People may differ in their opinions of what falls into the realm of incompetent, unethical, or unsafe practice, and the laws of every state are different. And even though I read law every day, I had trouble figuring out what to advise, given the current law governing nurses. No wonder nurses aren't sure what to do.

Nurses are told that they have a duty to protect patient safety. They learn this from language such as this, in one state's (Maryland) nursing regulations. Under "Ethical Responsibilities," it says: "A nurse shall...Act to safeguard a client and the public if health care and safety are affected by the incompetent, unethical, or illegal practice of any person."[1]

The implication is that when a nurse becomes aware of a patient safety threat, the nurse is supposed to do something.

Maryland is not alone in making such pronouncements. Here is language from the Texas Board of Nursing Website:

Situations involving potential risk of harm to patients or the public are referred to as "violating the nurse's duty to the patient" because all nurses have a duty under Rule 217.11(1)B to maintain a safe environment for patients/clients and others for whom the nurse is responsible. [2]

It makes sense to tell nurses that they are expected to safeguard patient safety. It would be even better if nurses who try to do something were better rewarded for their efforts. However, according to nurses I hear from, when a nurse reports a patient safety problem, the nurse often is surprised to find that he or she is considered the "bad guy." A nurse who raises quality issues that require a change of policy, practice, or staffing can be seen as a disruptor rather than someone who is making constructive criticism. Some nurses who have identified problems have found themselves out of a job.

This is bothersome. It's perfectly legal for a hospital to terminate a nurse, for any reason or for no reason. The only job protections are those granted by contract between the nurse and the hospital (whether it is an individual contract or a contract offered through a labor union) and those granted by the US Constitution and civil rights laws. The latter include the right to be free of discrimination on the basis of age, sex, national origin, race, sexual orientation, and religious preference. If the hospital isn't firing the nurse because of age, sex, national origin, race, sexual orientation, or religious preference, in general the firing is legal. A possible exception is a whistleblower law, which may, in some situations, provide protection for nurses who report patient safety problems. We will get to that shortly.

Although it is legal to fire a nurse for raising a patient safety issue (with a possible exception of whistleblower laws) it is not a situation one would hope for, from a patient's perspective.

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