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Ascension Hospital Risks Medical Mistakes with Low Staffing Levels

One of the country’s largest health systems, Ascension, has spent years slashing positions. As a result, they were flat-footed when the pandemic hit.

At a hospital outside Flint, Michigan, chronic understaffing has resulted in disastrous effects. Patients suffered lying in dried feces, as robots replaced nursing assistants who would otherwise be with mentally impaired patients.

This hospital is owned by one of the country’s largest health systems, Ascension. The company has spent many years reducing its staffing levels in an attempt to improve profitability, even though the chain is a nonprofit organization with nearly $18 billion of cash reserves.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, nurses have been leaving hospitals in earnest. The retreat has been the result of a number of factors, with the hospital industry blaming COVID, staff burnout, and tight labor markets for the acute shortages of staff.

But a New York Times investigation discovered that hospitals helped lay the groundwork for the labor crisis long before the arrival of COVID-19. In an attempt to improve their profitability, hospitals tried to get added work from fewer employees. When the pandemic deluged hospitals with critically ill patients, their lean staffing went from a financial strength to a glaring weakness.

About half of the roughly 5,000 hospitals in the country are nonprofits, and rather than paying taxes, the IRS requires them to provide services, like free healthcare for low-income patients. However, The Times has discovered that large chains of nonprofit hospitals have moved away from their charitable missions. Some have whittled down their free care for the poor, which has illegally burdened tens of thousands of patients with debts. Others have spent their resources in affluent suburbs while siphoning money from poorer areas. Plus, many have cut staff to skeletal levels, frequently at the expense of patient safety.

Ascension operates 139 hospitals, which is among the most of any chain in the country. The system is typical of the industrywide movement to keep labor costs low. As recently as 2019, Ascension was boasting of its success at reducing its number of employees per occupied bed——a common industry staffing metric. At one point, its executives bragged that they had slashed $500 million from the chain’s labor costs. In the years before the pandemic, Ascension regularly denied requests to hire more medical workers or fill open jobs, according to current and former hospital administrators and employees.

During surges in the coronavirus, Ascension repeatedly reduced its capacity by more than 500 beds nationwide because it didn’t have sufficient workers. In Michigan alone late last year, they had 1,100 nursing vacancies. Nurses said that these shortages had stark consequences.

Understaffing Can Result in Heavy Workloads and Mistakes

Nursing shortages lead to increased workloads for those who stay on the job. This means that there’s mandatory overtime and high demands for more work resulting in exhaustion and overworked staff who make errors. Heavy nursing workloads negatively impact patient safety. In addition, they have been found to result in the following:

• Reduced job satisfaction;
• Higher turnover; and
• Contribute to the nursing shortage.

Again, nursing workload issues can lead to errors that harm patients. Slips and lapses in judgment or execution errors become more frequent. Mistakes related to problems with education or knowledge also go up, as nurses may be pressed to help patients quickly and be pressured to forgo research to effectively treat the patient.

Plus, these time pressures may also reduce a nurse’s attention during safety-critical tasks. That means they’re more apt to make an error that leads to poor patient care. Also, these hospital staffing problems can increase the risk of serious injury, medical complications, or death. If there aren’t enough staff to attend to a patient and provide them with the standard level of care, and the patient suffers an injury, it may be a case of medical malpractice. This lapse may be the fault of the hospital, clinic, or nursing home when there are not enough staff to provide proper care to patients.

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A lapse in patient care caused by staffing shortages can cause serious injury or even death.

For a free consultation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in Michigan, contact Buchanan Firm. We can discuss your situation if you believe you’ve been injured as the result of a mistake that was the result of reduced staffing levels.

Our firm proudly serves people all across Michigan, including major cities like Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Detroit, Lansing, Holland, St. Joe, and Ann Arbor, and rural towns such as Lowell, Ada, Fremont, Newaygo, Grand Haven, Rockford, and Cedar Springs. We will meet you after-hours, at home or in the hospital to accommodate you.
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