Unionization gaining traction among physicians

Amid today's challenges, hospitals and health systems are seeing physicians seek representation at the bargaining table.

A number of factors are driving the trend. Physicians are seeking greater investments by hospitals in working conditions, staffing and pay.

Hospitals and health systems, meanwhile, emphasize their commitment to quality care and these professionals. They also express their respect for workers' rights, while maintaining their preference to work directly with workers.

Among the latest examples is Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., where physicians voted to join the Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association, a hospitalists union represented by AFT Healthcare and serviced by the Oregon Nurses Association. 

Eighty-seven percent of voting physicians voted in favor of unionization, according to an Aug. 1 union news release. The vote covers more than 70 physicians.

"We are embracing this opportunity to form our union," Shirley Fox, MD, an OB-GYN hospitalist at St. Vincent, said in the release. "We want to redefine our relationship with the hospital system which has increasingly put our concerns aside as it aims to meet corporate priorities. We wish to come face to face as respected health professionals to address important issues in the safe delivery of patient care and to address the sustainability of our current working conditions."

Renton, Wash.-based Providence, the parent organization of St. Vincent, shared the following statement with Becker's: "Providence respects the decision of the Providence Medical Group hospitalists who work at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center who have elected to unionize. We have a long history of working collaboratively with unions that caregivers have chosen to represent them, and we're committed to negotiating in good faith over the terms of a first contract."

Medical residents and fellows at Somerville, Mass.-based Mass General Brigham also voted to join the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local of the Service Employees International Union.

Seventy-five percent of voting physicians voted in favor of representation, according to a June 8 union news release. 

The vote covers more than 2,500 residents and fellows at Mass General Brigham hospitals, according to The Boston Globe. This includes trainees at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Mass Eye and Ear, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Salem Hospital, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Boston.

A website related to the union drive states that the effort is focused on "working to build collective power to advocate for a just, safe and equitable MGB for all housestaff, workers and patients." Among concerns cited by medical residents and fellows are a need for a living wage, adequate benefits and compensation commensurate with the cost of living in Boston, and financial support or subsidized child care for housestaff with children.

Paul Anderson, MD, PhD, interim chief academic officer at Mass General Brigham, said in a statement shared with Becker's, "As an organization dedicated to training the next great generation of caregivers, we are proud of the education that we provide to our residents and fellows, and we recognize the vital importance of the unique partnership between faculty and trainees in our institutions. While we are disappointed with the outcome, this election is part of a continuing national trend among medical trainees seeking collective bargaining through union representation.  

"Moving forward, our mission remains unchanged. We will continue to deliver on our promise of providing a world-class medical education experience, working within the parameters that will be established by the collective bargaining process."

While physicians are moving to unionize, those already unionized continue to voice their concerns. Pay has been a particular sticking point for workers.

Resident physicians of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford Health Care and Boston Medical Center resident physicians both held rallies in July to call for more competitive pay. The actions came amid labor negotiations. Stanford and BMC each emphasized their commitment to workers during negotiations. Resident physicians at both organizations are represented by the Committee of Interns and Residents.

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