State clears U of Wisconsin Health in nurses' dispute: 'We don't flinch from scrutiny,' CEO says

Wisconsin officials did not substantiate complaints made by unionized nurses at UW Health, who moved outside of regular reporting processes to elevate patient safety concerns to the state amid calls for staffing changes.

In November, UW Health nurses represented by SEIU Wisconsin issued more than 100 forms with patient safety concerns to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to intensify their calls for the academic health system to make staffing changes. The group of nurses created "Notice of Risk to Patient Safety" forms and distributed them to staff nurses at the Madison, Wis.-based system, which is outside of the organization's established process for reporting safety concerns or events, known as HERO.

The health system reportedly learned about the newly created forms and filing plans in September. "Rather than submitting them through our HERO system or working through their teams to address concerns, consistent with our culture of safety, they chose to attack our work through a press release," UW Health CEO Alan Kaplan, MD, said in a Dec. 19 email to employees, which was shared with Becker's

Dr. Kaplan notified the organization in his Dec. 19 email that the health department investigated the complaints, did not substantiate them and did not issue penalties.  

Wisconsin DHS surveyors visited UW Health sites from Dec. 5-7. In that time, the agency reviewed more than 10,000 documents, HERO reports, event reports and dozens of staff interviews in what Dr. Kaplan called "one of the most broad, in-depth and comprehensive [surveys] conducted by DHS in the history of UW Health."

CMS reviewed DHS' final report and issued its findings with UW Health the week of Dec. 18, concluding that the complaint was not substantiated and no citations would be issued, Dr. Kaplan said. 

"This reinforces what we already know to be true, that our quality and our culture of safety are part of the DNA of every single team member at UW Health," Dr. Kaplan wrote in his email. "While we don't enjoy having our work attacked, we don't flinch from the scrutiny, because we all believe in the quality of our care." 

In November, the union said it resorted to filing forms with DHS to "investigate patient safety problems and hold the administration accountable for solutions" since nurses have pushed for staffing changes since September 2022 but their proposals have been ignored, according to an SEIU release shared with Becker's.   

“UW Health and the Department of Health Services should trust nurses when we document serious concerns about the spiraling crisis of extreme understaffing, turnover and burnout that could put our patients at risk," the UW Health nurses represented by SEIU Wisconsin said in a statement shared with Becker's. "We are the ones at the bedside actually doing the work of caring for our community and we are the experts and best advocates for quality care. Many of the over 100 forms we submitted to DHS detail serious patient safety issues, including an exodus of 23% of the inpatient operating staff this year; nurses working 16 hour shifts; and inexperienced nurses being assigned to train new hires. 

“The Department of Health Services has not sent us its report, so we are unable to comment on its contents," the nurses' statement continues. "However, we can say unequivocally that our concerns have not been addressed, we continue to struggle with ongoing systemic problems and we will likely be submitting more forms to DHS moving forward."

The nurses' move to bring patient safety forms to DHS came nearly two months after the nurses announced they would intensify pressure on hospital administrators if they did not remove salary caps and provide greater pay transparency, according to reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  

UW Health employee 5,800 nurses, 2,900 of which are eligible to be members of the union pending court decision on collectively bargaining.

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