UPMC newsletter passage causes furor

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a response provided Tuesday morning from UPMC Altoona.

Registered nurses on a medical/surgical unit at UPMC Altoona are expected to be responsible for a number of patients that might be high enough to be considered risky, as the hospital deals with continued staffing issues, according to a passage in a recent purported management newsletter shared with the Mirror by multiple sources.

The passage on what the newsletter calls “a touchy subject” has been widely disseminated — and panned — on social media.

“Until things improve, we are asking staff to be understanding that taking 8 patients on med/surg is possible, when staffing situations are poor,” the passage states. “This is not ideal, nor is it safe, but this is a direct order coming from upper management … and refusal to take 8 when asked to may result in an HR (Human Resources) trip.”

A UPMC spokeswoman said the hospital is still investigating the matter and expects to have a comment on Tuesday.

“Really? UPMC Altoona? Really?” states a woman on Tik Tok, after reading the newsletter passage to her online audience. “That’s a threat. That’s not even a veiled threat. That’s an outright threat. You are admitting it’s not safe.”

A nurse-to-patient ratio of 1-5 or 1-6 is typical for med/surg floors, but 1 to 8 is “just too much,” said a floating nurse who didn’t want her name used for fear of repercussions, and who spoke to a reporter on the phone.

The med/surg ratio problem stems from an “overflowing” emergency room, which leads to beds filling up again quickly after patients are discharged, according to the newsletter.

The matter should be concerning both for patients and nurses, the floating nurse said.

It’s a problem because when an emergency occurs demanding the attention of a nurse, that nurse is unable to pay heed to her other patients, the floating nurse said.

For example, if one patient “codes,” or is in a life-threatening emergency, another patient in another room could fall, she said.

“You can’t be in two places at once,” she said.

The problematic passage has “gone extremely viral,” the floating nurse said.

She herself heard about it from a friend in California and someone she’s acquainted with in Boston, she said.

Last fall, when COVID-19 numbers were high, there was a lot of publicity about staffing shortages at UPMC Altoona, focused largely on the Emergency Department, where long waits became common.

“COVID-wise, things are much better now,” but staffing-wise, they’re not, because “so many nurses have left,” the floating nurse said.

That flight includes travel nurses who have cut short their contracts, she said.

The hospital has been trying to rectify the problem, but hasn’t been able to, because of an unwillingness to enhance pay and benefits as much as needed, according to the floating nurse.

It’s especially true with long-tenured nurses, whom the hospital hasn’t made enough of an effort to retain, she said.

“They (hospital management) are definitely not doing their best,” she said.

Nurses are generally unwilling to speak their minds freely about the staffing issue because “management will find a way to get you in trouble,” she said.

Some UPMC Altoona nurses, however, plan to hold a rally in front of the Blair County Courthouse today to advocate for the state General Assembly to “move forward with the Patient Safety Act,” legislation that would set staffing standards for hospitals, according to a news release from a spokesperson for SEIU-Healthcare PA, which represents the UPMC Altoona RNs.

In a statement provided to the Mirror Tuesday morning by Ed DeWitt, public relations manager, UPMC Altoona said: “The allegation is simply not true. Delivering safe, quality patient care is always our highest priority. The sentiments expressed in the social media posting are an excerpt of content written by an employee reflective of their own opinions. We always encourage staff to escalate any quality or safety concerns and no nurse would ever face disciplinary action for raising any related concerns. As such, a team member would never be sent to HR for raising patient safety issues. As one of the busiest hospitals in the region, and as with all UPMC hospitals, staffing is continually evaluated to ensure safety. Evidenced by our ‘A’ Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade announced today for UPMC Altoona, the health and safety of our patients is at the center of everything we do.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.


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