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Nurses deserve better, but strikes aren’t the answer

More than 7,000 nurses at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center and Mt. Sinai Hospital walked off the job this week, arguing that staff shortages have led to burnout and the inability to properly care for patients. 

Ironically, with only more than 75,000 licensed nurses in New York City, the nurses on strike will put a terrible burden on not just these hospitals but others too where the spillover of patients seeking care occurs. 

It has never occurred to me to strike. As a physician, I consider myself an emergency worker. In fact, I pride myself on it and I am not alone. 

This is not to say that I disagree with anything that the New York State Nurses Association is asserting. Nurses are very understaffed in New York City, there is a nursing shortage of over 700 nurses at Montefiore Medical Center. Not only that, but the pandemic and the growing health care bureaucracy have combined with a poor quality insurance expansion under the Affordable Care Act to create far more demand than either nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants or physicians are prepared to handle. 

Have you tried to get in to see your doctor lately? The waiting times both to get an appointment and to get seen once you get to the office are growing. Have you been to a city emergency room lately? There is bedlam in many places. Nurses (like most physicians) are overworked and underpaid.

The pandemic saw many health providers get sick and yet we shouldered on. It has always been part of our identity. I and my fellow interns sustained needle sticks from HIV patients working at Bellevue Hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and considered it our role to take these risks. Though no one I knew ever became HIV positive from a needle stick, others did. Many nurses felt and feel the same way and, in fact, they generally work more closely with patients than we do and have an even greater risk of getting infected from COVID or other pathogens. 

Nurses do need advocates. I remember that during a sudden COVID surge in North Dakota in late 2020, hospitals there were so overwhelmed that they considered bringing nurses still recovering from COVID back to work until the North Dakota Nurses Association blocked it. I applauded this move.

But striking is something different. A strike only makes the shortage worse and patients suffer terribly. This isn’t the way to go. The nurses are already being offered a 19.1 percent raise at these two hospitals, the kind of increase that doctors never see these days. In fact, we physicians really have no union to represent us. We have the American Medical Association, but they spend much of their funds lobbying unsuccessfully for malpractice reform and some of the rest of their dues supporting the Affordable Care Act, which has only made it more difficult to practice medicine amid narrow networks of providers and poor insurance reimbursements.

I don’t think anyone should feel sorry for either doctors or nurses. We knew what we were getting into. Most of us still feel privileged to care for our patients, to help people who are sick, to know their personal health details and to work to treat and sometimes to cure.

We do need to receive more accommodations and there definitely does need to be more of us to care for people properly. But striking isn’t the way to get us there.

Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, “COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”

Tags Affordable Care Act COVID-19 healthcare workers Nursing shortage nursing strike Politics of the United States

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