Due to the nature of their work, it is important that nurses’ professional conduct is regulated to prevent abuses of power. In New York State, such misconduct is regulated by the New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions. It is in charge of the investigation and prosecution of professional misconduct, while the Board of Regents is responsible for the disposition of disciplinary matters. Penalties for misconduct vary from fines, license suspension to, in extreme cases, the loss of a license altogether. There are, however, questions as to whether the penalties given to nurses who commit misconduct are adequate to prevent further misconduct, and prevent nurses who have problems with drugs and other substances from practicing while intoxicated.
Summaries of investigations and penalties assessed are available online on the New York State Education Departments website listed by last name and by date. While such summaries do not give very much information about the circumstances of the misconduct, they can provide a general overview of the regulatory process and the range of misconduct dealt with by the Education Department.
The misconduct ranges from nurses who have committed crimes that on their face are not connected with their professional lives, such as driving while intoxicated, to misconduct on the job such as failure to comply with infection prevention techniques. In September, 2014, out of fifty-one cases, eleven dealt with driving while intoxicated and several were for errors in medication administration or maintaining patient records. The prevalence of driving while intoxicated cases may point to a problem with substances in the nursing profession.
This volume of cases, coupled with limited information provided (often a terse paragraph such as “licensee admitted to the charge of failing to witness a patient ingest medication that she was ordered to administer to him”), makes it hard to determine the scope of misconduct and whether the current regulatory framework is doing enough to prevent and punish nurses who commit misconduct. A recent New York Post article entitled “Nurses getting wrist slaps for incompetence, drug use” illustrates the scope of the problem. The Post points out that in the New York City area fifty nurses are disciplined by the Board of Regents each year and many receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist for instances of serious misconduct.
The Post highlights the case of Kathy Dzus who was disciplined for working while high on cocaine. The summary on the Department of Education website reads “licensee did not contest the charge of practicing the profession of nursing while the ability to practice was impaired by drugs.” The Post was able to get more information through a freedom of information request while the official site does not go into any degree of detail. Dzus was only given 2 years probation, a 2 year stayed suspension, and a five hundred dollar fine. Because her suspension is stayed she is free to work with patients immediately despite the danger she previously put them in by working while on cocaine.
Dzus is not the only nurse whose penalty appears insufficient given the severity of her misconduct. When asked about the disparity between the misconduct and the penalty, the Board of Education told the Post that the agency does not actively seek out incidents of misconduct, but that it waits to get reports of misconduct before taking action. Given the importance of nurses in patient care and the intimate nature of their work, it appears that a more rigorous process for investigating abuse needs to be in place to prevent nurses who have substance abuse problems from working while intoxicated or under the influence.