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What would Florence do?

By Chris Barton, RN, BSN

As we celebrated National Nurses’ Week and the critical role that nurses play, we also recognized the 192nd birthday of Florence Nightingale.

Florence, the mother of modern nursing, was known as “the lady with the lamp” for her late night rounds among her patients.

Today’s rounds may not require a lamp, but they do require an endless checklist of patient needs, often dictated by business priorities instead of by the actual needs of our patients. Recently I’ve begun to wonder what Florence would do if she were transported to one of our hospitals today.  How would she appraise our increasingly difficult struggle to provide safe and quality care to our patients?

Would she be horrified to know that hospital-acquired infections are one of the leading causes of death in this country?

One hundred and fifty years ago, Florence was a strong force in changing hospital practices to prevent such needless deaths.  When she served as a nurse in the Crimean War, she was astonished to find that ten times more soldiers died from illnesses such as typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery than from battle wounds.  In those days, medicine was scarce.  Hygiene practices were inconsistent at best, and often non-existent.

So what would Florence think of the fact that, 150 years later, patient safety continues to be the most critical issue facing nurses?  That deaths related to preventable hospital errors take the lives of “Wemore than 100,000 patients each year?

What would she think of a healthcare system whose hospitals are dominated by a corporate approach that subordinates patient care to market share, fancy lobbies, and the bottom line?

Our patients today aren’t coming in from Crimean War battlefields.  Our modern hospital stays shouldn’t require a battle to get patients’ needs met.  Our patients should leave the hospital having received care that ensures their recovery, not a return to the hospital.  As nurses, we should be able to live up to our creed to do no harm.

I believe that Florence would be heartened to see thousands of nurses working together in activism, policy and legislation — all designed to put our patients first.  She’d be encouraged that nurses have a collective voice in our union contracts to work directly with our employers to negotiate over our workplace and patient care conditions.

What would Florence co?  I think the lady with the lamp would say, “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we can do it.

“When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.”

We know Florence as the original patient safety advocate, working in far more primitive conditions than those in today’s high-tech hospitals.  If she were with us today, she’d be confident that together we can take on the challenges ahead to ensure safe and quality care for our patients.

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