Every year, hospitals around the country observe "Nurses' Week," a national celebration from May 6-12 that coincides with the birthdate of Florence Nightingale, who was born May 12, 1820.
Many registered nurses find themselves at catered lunches, listening to flowery speeches by hospital CEOs who suddenly appear among them like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a visit to Baghdad's Green Zone.
While the reality of deteriorating conditions awaits them back in the war zone of their hospital wards, overworked nurses can briefly enjoy free manicures and massages, plus collect heart-shaped key chains, coffee mugs (with their employer's name on it) or teddy bears dressed as -- you guessed it -- nurses.
What's rarely addressed during Nurses' Week, however, are the workplace issues that are driving RNs away from the hospital bedside in huge numbers: of under-staffing, forced overtime and job dissatisfaction.
Some studies report that as many as 50 percent of all new hires leave bedside nursing within two years. Despite increased funding for nursing education, expensive ad campaigns and generous hospital signing bonuses to aid RN recruitment, many younger people are reluctant to go into hospital nursing.
As a result, there is a serious nursing shortage.
Instead of showering nurses with happy talk and trinkets, hospitals should try a different approach.
They should provide their nurses with seven days' worth of optimal working conditions.
What would this kind of Nurses' Week look like?
First, no nurse would be struggling to care for as many as seven to 10 sick people at the same time. On a medical surgical floor, they would be assigned to no more than four patients (based on legislated staffing ratios implemented in the Australian state of Victoria in 2000) or, closer to home, five patients (the maximum patient load permitted California). All Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses would be able to provide one-on-one care instead of juggling as many as three seriously ill patients.
Nurses with fewer patients are better able to provide quality care and less apt to quit because they are frustrated that they can't do their jobs properly.
Nurses' Week should also offer a respite from heavy lifting. As the average nurse gets older and patients get heavier, nursing has become the new definition of back-breaking labor. Nurses at the bedside are often asked to lift loads unsafe for even a blue-collar worker. That's why nurses now suffer a higher rate of more musculoskeletal injuries than dock workers, baggage handlers and building tradesmen.
For Nurses' Week, at least, hospitals everywhere should provide the same kind of equipment to lift and turn patients that has been used for the past six years in the Australian state of Victoria.
More than a year ago, the California legislature passed legislation that would have required the state's hospitals to bring in modern lift equipment. But Gov. Schwarzenegger apparently figured nurses should all become body builders too. And so, at the behest of the hospital industry, he vetoed the legislation.
One full week without mandatory overtime or "on call" duty would be another way of properly thanking nurses. Many hospitals have been dealing with recent staffing shortages by forcing already exhausted RNs to work an extra shift -- after their regular 12-hour one -- with no prior warning.
In some hospitals, lunches, coffee breaks and even trips to the bathroom are being sacrificed so RNs can handle larger numbers of more acutely ill patients. But for Nurses' Week, these relief periods should be guaranteed.
Studies show that improving working conditions would help save lives, reduce complications -- such as falls, bedsores and urinary tract infections, to name only a few -- and increase nurse satisfaction.
These practices would also save hospitals money -- particularly because they would lead to less nurse turnover.
We need to insist on safe staffing ratios, no lift policies, a ban on mandatory overtime and other nurse-friendly, patient-friendly measures. We can do this legislatively, or via union contract.
When we do, then nurses -- and their patients -- will really have something to celebrate when May rolls around.
Suzanne Gordon is a journalist and author of several books, including her most recent, "Nursing Against the Odds: How Hospital Cost-Cutting, Media Stereotypes, and Medical Hubris Undermine Nurses and Patient Care" (Cornell University Press, 2005). She can be reached at email@example.com.