The case of Amanda Trujillo has generated a great deal of passionate commentary across the nursing blogosphere. Trujillo, as you may well know, is the nurse who was fired by Banner Health Del E. Webb Medical Center for requesting multi-disciplinary hospice care case management consult for a pre-transplant patient with end-stage liver disease. The request angered the patient’s physician — not the transplant surgeon, incidentally, nor someone with any knowledge of transplant surgery — who complained to Trujillo’s manager. After her termination, the hospital subsequently reported her to the Arizona State Board of Nursing for exceeding her scope of practice. If the Board finds against Trujillo, she may well face the loss of her license or other sanctions; in the event, her nursing career would be finished. Superficially, at least, an open and shut case, or least this is how Banner Health would like to project the controversy. Scratch the surface a little and matters change considerably.
So why are nurses so furious? Part of it is the apparent coincidence of any number of other, seemingly random bits of information outside the direct narrative of Trujillo’s story. The fact that the Arizona State Board of Nursing chose to deem Trujillo’s attempt to defend herself publicly as “retaliatory behavior” just as her story was becoming part of the general conversation, and then ordered a psychiatric evaluation is one of those seemingly random bits. This struck me particularly. Suspicious minds might see a pattern to punish Trujillo for speaking up by publicly labelling her mentally disturbed (and in health care, as any nurse will tell you, acquiring that label is doubly damning.) For myself, I will be content to note that throughout history calling people crazy is a traditional means of discrediting those challenging authority and marginalizing dissent.
And there are other random bits: that the Arizona Board of Nursing (for example) chose to inform Trujillo’s doctoral program of the ongoing investigation just last week — some ten months after the initial complaint. The apparent close linkages between various facets of the nursing “leadership” in Arizona, which I am told is known as the “Circle of Death” for woe to any nurse who crosses it. The secrecy, the opacity of all the institutional players, from Banner Health to the Arizona Nurses Association. The sense of arbitrary and coercive behaviour from any of these. Separately, they don’t amount to much — but together? Suspicious minds, as I said, begin to see patterns.
But there are far more substantive issues the firing of Trujillo raises. Take, for example, the matter how and why Trujllo was fired. From Trujillo’s account, it was arbitrary and unjust. Trujillo acted, she says, in good faith; her intent was to help the patient make an informed choice about his treatment options; she had made the same request for similar cases previously without consequence or objection; there was no hospital policy positively forbidding nurses to make this request. The only difference, it appears, was the physician’s annoyance, that as Trujillo’s manager put it, Trujillo had “messed up all of the work they had done, and that the doctors were nowhere near going down the hospice route.”
So there is this, a manager’s buckling under physician pressure, to do something about this turbulent nurse, a nurse who was trying to conscientiously to do her duty —- which happened to conflict with the plans of the physician. But that is not even the really bad part. Let me put it in this way by citing an example that has weighty consequences for both nurse and patient. If nurse commits a serious medication error, best practice anywhere is for the hospital administration to do a root cause analysis. The purpose of this analysis is not to apportion blame, but to prevent the error from ever happening again.
Once the root cause is determined, there might be changes to existing policies and procedures, and there might be education. Almost always, there is some sort of remediation of the nurse involved, because responsibility for a medication error is ultimately a shared responsibility from the nurse who administers the medication to the senior managers who are responsible for policies ensuring patient safety. For Trujillo, there was none of this — just security escorting her off the premises.
A reasoned, measured response to Trujillo’s actions, using root cause analysis, might suggest change and clarification of existing procedure for ordering case management consults. Instead, we have a nurse whose offence is so grievous that the hospital chose to fire her and then report her to the state Board of Nursing. To put it another way, even if Trujillo was completely in error in her interaction with this patient, and exceeded her scope of practice, what exact demonstrable harm was done to the patient?
I am puzzled why a clerical error — which I think is the worst possible cast one could put on Trujillo’s actions — merits termination and Board of Nursing discipline, while a serious medication error generally would not. It’s the gross inequity of outcomes which is so troublesome. Please note, in this context, nurses are generally fired and reported to regulatory bodies when there is concern they are a danger to the public.
So you have to ask yourself this simple question: even if you accept Trujillo exceeded her scope of practice, was firing her and then reporting her to the Board of Nursing proportionate to the supposed misdemeanour? Acting rashly, inequitably, without reason, and disproportionately, to my way of thinking anyway, is central to any definition of arbitrary and unjust behaviour.
We are also angry that Trujillo apparently was penalized for acting as her patient’s advocate and for attempting to ensure her patient could act with autonomy. This has serious implications for all nurses, because hobbling any nurse’s ability to act as advocate seriously jeopardizes patient care and safety. But first, the word “advocate” has been bandied about so much I want to inject a little clarity as to what exactly nurse-as-advocate means in the context of end-of-life care. This is what my own regulatory body, the College of Nurses of Ontario, says:
Nurses advocate for their clients and help implement their treatment and end-of-life care wishes. However, a client’s request to receive a treatment does not automatically bring with it the obligation for the nurse to provide the treatment. A nurse is not obligated to implement a client’s treatment wish if it has been determined that the treatment will not benefit the client and is therefore not a part of the plan of care.
The College — no slouches in the matter of nursing ethics, by the way — goes on to tell us that that nurses act as advocates by ensuring patients have informed consent when implementing multidisciplinary care plans and by (says the College)
acting on behalf of the client to help clarify the plans for treatment when:
- the client’s condition has changed and it may be necessary to modify a previous decision;
- the nurse is concerned the client may not have been informed of all elements in the plan of treatment, including the provision or withholding of treatment;
- the nurse disagrees with the physician’s plan of treatment; and
- the client’s family disagrees with the client’s expressed treatment wishes
I think this is fairly standard nursing practice anywhere, and how all of us understand advocacy, whatever the stage of life. It is needful to point out the College phrases its language as nurses “must” not “may.” In other words, advocacy is not optional part of nursing practice. And what about patient autonomy? One of the four pillars of health care ethics, patient autonomy is the right of all patients to make informed decisions about their care and treatment, and necessarily implies outcomes matter most importantly for the patient, not the health care team. Nurse advocacy, it hardly needs to be said, is an important part of ensuring a patient can act an informed autonomous way.
So we have a situation where Trujillo was practising under universally accepted nursing standards, using the nursing process and nursing judgement, made a nursing assessment, educated her patient, in order that the patient could make an informed decision about his treatment options; in short, she acted to preserve her patient’s autonomy, and then was punished in the worst possible way for her attempts to be, well, a good nurse. Here’s her account, drawn from her lawyer’s representation to the Arizona Board of Nursing:
Having assessed the knowledge deficit related to the patient’s routine medications, disease process, associated tests and procedures, the plan of care for transplant evaluation and palliative care options, Ms. Trujillo proceeded to print out patient educational material from Banner’s website that addressed those areas. . . Ms. Trujillo also provided materials related to hospice care per the patient’s request. Ms. Trujillo, concerned about the patient’s lack of understanding of (pts) treatment regimen and the option for comfort care, discussed her education of the patient with her clinical manager, Frances Fausto, who readily supported Ms. Trujillo’s plan of care and interventions. . .
Ms. Trujillo and the patient reviewed the materials over the course of the night. After a full review of the materials the patient stated, “Had I known everything I would have to go through and the commitment I would have to make, I would not have agreed to the transplant evaluation.” The patient inquired into whether there was anything else (pt) could do besides enduring more tests, procedures or surgeries. Ms.Trujillo then explained hospice care services and the differences between symptom relief care and end of life care. The patient expressed serious concern that (pt) would not be able to commit to an extensive aftercare regimen following the transplant by stating “at this stage in (pts) life (pt) just wanted to be around family.” The patient requested to visit with a representative from hospice in order to ask some questions and gain additional information that would assist (pt) in making a more informed decision regarding (pts) course of care.
Ms. Trujillo placed a note in the chart pertaining to the assessment of knowledge deficit, the specific education provided and the palliative care discussion, in addition to, the patient’s request to see a case manager from hospice. She used the SBAR (Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendation) format of report required in Banner policy when she handed off care of the patient to the dayshift nurse, alerting the nurse that the patient requested more information prior to being transferred to another facility for a transplant evaluation. She also alerted the dayshift nurse that there was a nursing note in the record for the doctor to read that detailed what occurred over the course of Ms. Trujillo’s shift with the patient.
I am not seeing a lot of daylight between a world-respected professional regulatory body’s standards of nursing practice and Trujillo’s actions. I personally would do no different. Which brings us to the exact point of what disturbs and angers so many nurses: when hospitals run roughshod over a nurse’s professional and ethical judgement, when they refuse to acknowledge a nurse’s central ethical duty to sustain patient autonomy, there does not seem to be any point to acting as a professionals at all. Or maybe, that’s the real message hospital corporations want to send: that front line nurses aren’t really professionals, and larger questions of ethics and patient care are better left to higher beings — physicians, corporate managers and our nursing “leadership.”
This is why we are passionate about Amanda Trujillo. This is why we are so angry. The issues raised by the Trujillo case affect each of us, because this is how we practice nursing. By keeping patients — their wants, desires, needs, autonomy — front and centre.
Advocates for Amanda Trujillo — and I include myself in that number — have been criticized for jumping the gun, for not waiting for the other side of the story, for surely Banner Health and all the rest will have their speak. I concede the point. I accept I may be wrong. Not all facts are apparent, and some will never come out. (By the same token I am not clear what further details are needed to come out in order to form a reasonable conclusion about the situation. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers, or use a more modern reference, a WikiLeaks cache dump.) My sense of the situation, however, is that Amanda Trujillo’s position is far nearer the truth.
I say this not because of the documentation, or because I have spoken to Trujillo about her case (and five minutes on the phone with was enough to convince me of her utter veracity), or because she makes herself readily available to her supporters — she spoke with me for over an hour last evening despite an exhausting day, and was able to answer with clarity some very probing questions — but because, sadly, her case follows the same pattern of abuse we have seen in other cases almost too numerous to count: arbitrary and vengeful behaviour from health care corporations, official investigations, attempts to discredit nurses and nursing and after a long time and huge financial and personal cost to nurse involved, vindication. And this is what frightens so many nurses: what happened to Trujillo and all the rest can easily happen to any of us, and in the process, chip away at our collective professional integrity. So a lot of us in the nursing blogosphere and through social media are determined to hold the feet of Banner Health, the Arizona Board of Nursing and all the rest to the fire. The fact so many of us are so vehemently engaged in this issue speaks volumes about our determination to uphold the integrity of our beloved profession.