VA spends millions on program to curb nurse injuries

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is taking the lead against nurse musculoskeletal injuries, which occur at a rate of about three times that of construction workers.

Nurses and doctors at VA hospitals are no longer allowed to manually lift patients, as they have been taught for more than a century, NPR reported. Attempting to lift patients is overwhelmingly the most common cause of nurse musculoskeletal injuries.

"The guideline is, you're not manually moving or handling patients. You're using technology," Tony Hilton, the safe patient handling and mobility coordinator at the VA's Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Medical Center in Loma Linda, California, told NPR.

Despite training in "body mechanics," which calls for clinicians to keep their backs straight and bend at the knees and hips when lifting heavy loads, injury rates remain high. Nurses suffer more on-the-job injuries than police officers, correctional officers, truckers and repair workers, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

These injuries often go unacknowledged by hospital administrators. "Nurses knew about it, physicians knew about it, hospitals' administrators knew about it," former VA researcher Michael Hodgson told NPR. In 2008 the VA announced the "safe patient handling program" to transform all 153 of its hospitals, making them safer for nurses. Since then, the VA has spent more than $200 million on the program, according to NPR.

At Loma Linda, engineers installed lifts in each of the 207 patient rooms, as well as just about anywhere else patients may need to go--imaging departments, dialysis centers and even the morgue. Many hospitals use lifts and power gurneys, but few have implemented the technology this thoroughly, NPR reported. At Loma Linda, nursing injuries are down 30 percent. Last year Loma Linda spent "zero" on hiring replacements for nurses hurt on the job, according to Hilton.

But just having the equipment won't curb injuries, Hilton said; nurses must "buy into" the new technology. Many Loma Linda rooms have had lifts for years, but staff didn't want to use them. "They were used to their old ways. They wouldn't use it," he said. "We have been taught for years that we manually handle patients … to undo that in your brain is a cultural change."

This shift requires around-the-clock training. On every unit, on every shift, a peer trainer is assigned to coach colleagues on the new technology, according to NPR.

To learn more:
- Check out the NPR article