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After being fired for taking safety issues over my supervisor's head, is there anything I can do to make a healthcare facility safer?

Monday October 7, 2013
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Question:

Dear Nancy,

I started with a new employer and was sickened by what I saw. There were numerous, system-wide deviations from multiple Joint Commission standards, OSHA standards and huge HIPAA violations. Concerned for my community and wanting to shed light on obvious oversights, I brought each to the attention of my superior as well as the department heads involved as we were instructed during orientation.

My superior was furious with me for going over her head, but she took no action when I brought each of them to her. The issues represented serious safety issues for patients and staff as defined by the Joint Commission Patient Safety Goals. The facility had not been inspected since 2005.

Soon, I was written up for minor and bogus infractions. When I disagreed with their validity, I was terminated for "failure to respond positively to counseling."

What can I do as an outsider to make the facility safe for community members, and what can I do to defend my previously good reputation?

BL



Dear Nancy replies:

Dear BL,

It appears that you did all you could do within the healthcare system within which you worked to alert it and those in power about the problems you identified. You did not mention if your facility has a compliance officer, but it is assumed that one exists and that you shared your concerns with that person as well.

Unfortunately, since your voiced issues were not heeded, it may be necessary for you to share them with outside agencies. In short, you may become a whistleblower. In order to do so carefully and to be consistent with the requirements for reporting unsafe, unethical and other misconduct to identified agencies, it would be most important for you to retain a nurse attorney or attorney in your state who can help guide you through those processes.

Before you meet with your attorney, you might want to review a few articles on the topic of whistleblowing. One is by Ahern and others (2002), "The Beliefs of Nurses Who Were Involved in a Whistleblowing Event, 38(3) Journal of Advanced Nursing, 303-309. Another online reference is Thomas and Willman (2012), "Why Nurses Need Whistleblower Protection", 3(3) Journal of Nursing Regulation, 19-23. The third is Philipsen and Solken's 2011 article, "Preparing to Blow the Whistle: A Survival Guide for Nurses, and is available at http://Whistleblowing.us/2011/10/preparing-to-blow-the-whistle-a-survival-guide-for-nurses (accessed October 5, 2013).

Your attorney also can advise you as to what options you may have concerning your termination. For example, some state nurse practice acts prohibit an employer from terminating or otherwise disciplining a nurse licensee when he or she reports healthcare delivery issues to the appropriate authorities. In addition, the case or common law in your state may prohibit a termination in retaliation for reporting healthcare infractions to outside agencies. The tort is called "retaliatory discharge" and remedies are varied, including back pay.

Regards,
Nancy




Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.