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Washington state nurses sue hospital over mandatory flu vaccination rule

Patient safety touted as the goal behind the effort to get 100% compliance among health care workers.

By — Posted Oct. 18, 2004

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A plan that officials at Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center had hoped would improve patient safety and save lives has landed them in some legal hot water instead.

The Washington State Nurses Assn., on behalf of the hospital's 500 nurses, filed a petition in federal court Oct. 1, seeking an injunction to stop implementation of the hospital's new policy of mandatory flu shots for all employees.

"Nurses feel they don't have a choice between getting a shot or leaving Virginia Mason," said WSNA spokeswoman Anne Tan Piazza. "The WSNA absolutely supports flu vaccinations and we are well aware of their benefits, but we think the approach to compliance is through education and not through threats of termination."

Virginia Mason spokeswoman Kim Davis said education efforts had achieved a vaccination rate of about 55%, which is significantly higher than the 38% national rate for health care workers, but the hospital is shooting for 100%.

"This new policy will save lives," said Virginia Mason Infectious Disease Section Head Robert M. Rakita, MD, in a press release.

He added that patient safety is a top priority, and that includes making sure physicians and staff "are not passing on potentially life-threatening diseases -- like the flu -- to our patients."

Bruce Bagley, MD, medical director of quality improvement for the American Academy of Family Physicians, said having 100% of the staff immunized was a good idea but making it mandatory equaled an "error in organizational leadership."

"Your employer can't stick stuff in your body without your permission," Dr. Bagley said. He added that flu shots are recommended for anyone older than 50, people with chronic diseases and all health care workers.

"Anything we can do to promote flu shots in those three groups is good, but health care workers as a class of people should all get them -- regardless of age," he said. "It's a good idea, whether it's the hospital or the doctor's office. From an employee-wellness point of view, it makes sense."

In a hospital, Dr. Bagley said, immunizing staff protects patients, but in a primary care physician's office, it's the other way around, as a higher percentage of people come in specifically because they have the flu.

"We always encourage everyone in our office to get a flu shot because it's the right thing to do when you're around sick people," Dr. Bagley said, adding that he's gotten a flu shot each of the 30 years he's been in practice and has never gotten the flu.

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