MDI Hospital Nurses Protest Stalled Contract Talks

Jun 26, 2014

Nurses protest today outside Mount Desert Island hospital.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell

Registered nurses and union supporters picketed in the rain outside Mount Desert Island hospital today. They're upset over contract talks, which they say are stalled over issues of patient safety at the Bar Harbor hospital. Although hospital administrators say they've made their final offer, the nurses want more say over the hospital's technology and equipment. 

The registered nurses' contract with the hospital expired more than a month ago, and the last round of talks broke down earlier this month. While some issues were resolved, others were not.

The big stumbling block, according to the union representing the nurses, is over technology in use at the hospital.  The nurses say their work environment is plagued by equipment problems, and that those problems are putting patients at risk.

"Our patients are our families and we wouldn't be out here if they didn't matter to us," says Vanessa Dalton, a registered nurse at MDI. She says these days, nurses have to rely heavily on multiple electronic devices that are supposed to work together. But Dalton says this hospital's electronic health system is failing.

For example, she says a nurse is supposed to be able to scan a patient's hospital band, bedside, order the prescribed medications right then and there, and check the dosage to be given.   

"If the computers drop connection, then you find yourself logging on outside the patient's room, walking into the patient's room, scanning their bracelet, and then walking back out to the door to get a better connection so that you can scan the individual medications," Dalton says.

The connection dropouts and poorly dovetailed equipment are not only time-consuming and frustrating to work with, says Dalton, but she says the interruption in the work flow means that errors are more likely; nurses might get distracted, and data might be entered incorrectly.

Nurse Doris Plumer says it all started with the troubled implementation of electronic health systems a decade ago. "I've been a nurse there for almost 40 years," Plumer says, "and I have not seen it so unsafe until the last 10 years, when this new technology came in."

Both Plumer and Dalton say they've been complaining about the problems for years to no avail. Dalton says the professionals who actually use the equipment every day need to have more input when it comes to choosing these kinds of systems - and this time, they want it in their contract.

But MDI Hospital spokesperson Oka Hutchins says that the hospital has already met this demand. "In our last session we agreed to the union's proposed language for enhanced collaboration over the acquisition of new technology," Hutchins says.

Hutchins says the only stumbling block in the contract that remains now is "financial in nature." But the union representing the nurses says that's not true. "When proposals are agreed upon, they're actually signed by both parties," says Vanessa Sylvester, of the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

And that, Sylvester days, has not taken place. "If we had agreed on our patient safety issue, we wouldn't be taking the time to be out in front of the hospital, or working on this very, very important issue," she says.

Sylvester says there's nothing in writing and no understanding between the hospital and the union on the nurses' technology demand.

What happens now is not clear. The hospital says it's made its "last, best and final offer," and that the union has until July 16 to accept it. But the nurses say that they will keep picketing until the hospital comes back to the table and officially agrees to their demands.