MADISON, Wis. — As a group of nurses at UW Health hope to unionize, this week they took a drastic step to provide state officials with insight into what they say is a crisis in health care fueled by understaffing, high turnover and burnout. 

What You Need To Know

  • UW Health nurses report serious patient safety concerns, citing understaffing, high turnover and burnout as key issues
  • Infusion nurse Shari Signer highlights over a hundred pages of unanswered nurse-reported violations submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
  • UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan contends that their safety system, HERO, is effective, attributing the concerns to a perceived attempt to leverage patient safety for increased wages
  • Despite the hospital's defense, nurses stress their commitment to patient safety, expressing worries about conditions in the Inpatient Surgical Department and advocating for a collective voice through unionization

“We’re fighting for patient care, for quality care, for better work-life balances for our staff at the hospital,” UW Health infusion nurse Shari Signer said.

The 20-year veteran nurse was part of a team of nurses who submitted a stack of more than a hundred pages of unanswered nurse-reported violations to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Thursday.

Signer stressed the gravity of the situation. She said the documents underlined an urgent need for intervention. However, UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan refuted the claim.  

In a September email to providers and staff, he spoke of how the current quality and safety system known as HERO not only worked well, but usage was up by 24% in the last year. Kaplan also said that nurses were using patient safety concerns as a bargaining chip for increased wages.

“We told them that any compensation issues would be addressed through our normal processes,” he said.

But Signer said this wasn’t the case.

“That is completely false… our goal here is to focus on patient safety and the best patient care we can provide,” she said.

Concerns predominantly centered around UW Health’s Inpatient Surgical Department, where nurses, advocating for unionization with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), expressed anxieties about staff departures and challenging working conditions.

UW Health press secretary Emily Kumlein Greendonner defended the hospital’s staffing position and positive workplace environment.

“Not only do nurses want to come work at UW Health, but they are more likely to stay here as well,” she said.

Greendonner also highlighted a low 10% turnover rate in the operating room and the recruitment of 250 new registered nurses last year.

Despite those staffing reassurances, Signer argued that their concerns remained unaddressed. It’s the reason she said she continues to support the need for a collective voice in decisions impacting patient care.