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Monday, August 17, 2009

Protecting Nurses From Back Injury

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Audrey Nelson, a medical researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs, fought the odds to protect thousands of nurses and other health care providers from disabling workplace injuries.

Nelson began her quest 20 years ago to solve the problem of musculoskeletal injuries among nurses. She observed how workers at loading docks relied on equipment for lifting, and she never stopped asking why nurses weren't using mechanical means to move patients.

"Her observations led her to do research that transformed the way we care for patients," Stephen Lucas, director of the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla., said.

Nelson's pursuit of a solution to the high rate of nursing injuries led to a $200 million three-year program funded by the VA, designed to radically change the way nurses handle patients nationwide. The program discourages manual lifting, promoting the use of mechanical technologies instead.

"Because of her tireless dedication to improving care and getting people to work together, we have the best practices for moving patients that will keep them safe, and that will keep nurses safe and in the profession longer," Lucas said.

In coordination with the American Nurses Association and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Nelson's efforts also have resulted in a safe patient handling curriculum at 26 of the nation's nursing schools.

Nurses represent the largest group of health care providers in the nation, with about 38 percent reporting back injuries during their career due mainly to transferring, lifting, moving, turning and bathing patients.

Back injuries have been a major contributor to the nursing shortage, but for decades the efforts to reduce work-related musculoskeletal injuries in hospitals and nursing homes relied mostly on body mechanics classes or training in lifting techniques that proved to be largely unsuccessful.

Working at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Florida, Nelson identified the common nursing tasks that contributed most to musculoskeletal injuries. She tested ways to redesign the task or to complete it using mechanical lifts and transfer devices, which led to a series of studies and clinical tests funded by the VA.

Her studies developed an approach that decreased the number and severity of patient handling injuries, lowered worker compensation costs and resulted in increased comfort and dignity for patients.

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