I See You

Intensive care unit nurses discover St. Joseph Hospital's management secretly spied on them

| September 17, 2009
One of the spy cameras disguised to look like a smoke detector.
One of the spy cameras disguised to look like a smoke detector.
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Nurses in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka have discovered that video cameras disguised as smoke detectors were secretly installed in their unit -- including in a private break room with lockers where some of them change their clothes. The California Nurses Association has filed a grievance demanding surveillance be stopped and asking for documentation on the cameras and anything they recorded.

Needless to say, some of the nurses are feeling creeped out.

"I feel very violated," said one nurse who came to the Journal's office on Monday to talk about the spy cams. She asked to be anonymous. "I walk through the halls, I walk by these people in suits, and I wonder, 'Gee, I wonder if they've seen me change. I wonder if they were watching me.'"

Another St. Joe's ICU nurse who joined the interview -- Kathryn Donahue, who is on the CNA Board of Directors -- said a couple of nurses discovered the spy cams on Sept. 2. It was, ironically, right after the hospital had installed a new camera system to monitor exits. The new "fisheye" cameras -- which are not disguised -- are dark shiny globes stuck to the ceiling throughout the unit, each with an obvious lens peeking out of an opening. The nurses were studying the new fisheye cameras, and that led to their scrutinizing one of the "smoke detectors" -- which had been installed sometime earlier, in the spring, recalled the nurse.

"And one of the nurses said, 'Come and look at this, that looks like a lens,'" said the nurse. They opened it up and discovered it was indeed a camera. And there were more like it. One nurse confronted the ICU interim manager, who confirmed that it was a camera. The nurses called their labor reps -- Donahue and Ian Selden, the union's labor representative in Oakland. Selden filed a grievance the next day in a letter to Bob Sampson, vice president of human resources at St. Joe's. Donahue, who is the union's local nurse representative, put up a copy of Selden's letter to Sampson on all the CNA bulletin boards in the hospital, along with a flier.

The flier asks, "Is St. Joe's our new Big Brother ... or just another Peeping Tom?" It threatens legal action. Donahue said she keeps having to put the CNA letter and flier back up, however, because management keeps taking them down.

Selden's letter says the installation of surveillance equipment in the workplace is a mandatory subject of bargaining, and calls management's flaunting of that requirement an "outrageous and shameful violation of [the nurses'] privacy rights, as guaranteed under state and federal law."

This Tuesday, the hospital's vice president of marketing and public relations, Laurie Watson-Stone, issued a details-scant statement denying the CNA's allegation that the hospital violated staff privacy.

"We are deeply troubled by the CNA's accusations," says the statement.

It quotes Sampson, who says the surveillance cameras were installed and operated as part of an investigation "in response to serious allegations about inappropriate conduct of certain ICU staff members ... These surveillance cameras helped provide a fair and thorough internal review that assisted us with maintaining the high quality of care that our clinicians and staff have worked so hard to establish."

Donahue said the smoke-detector cameras went up not long before St. Joe's suspended four ICU night-shift nurses and a supervisor, on June 17. The nurses were later fired, and while St. Joe's did not give reasons, one of the fired nurses told the Journal they were accused of, among other things, over-sedating patients, improperly delivering medications, surfing the Internet and playing guitars.

Donahue said the hospital has not responded to the CNA's demands. On Sept. 9, however, Sampson spoke to the nurses before one of their meetings, said the other nurse. He told them five hidden cameras were installed in ICU in June, were turned off less than two weeks later on June 24, and that the camera in the locker room had not been turned on, ever. In a memo posted on the bulletin boards the next day, Sept. 10, Sampson reiterates that point, saying the camera in the locker room "was never turned on due to mechanical/wiring problems," and that the hospital didn't know people changed their clothes in that room. "Contrary to CNA's accusations, no employees were observed or video-taped changing clothes," says the memo.

"But you know what? There was intent," said the nurse. "And that's scary. Besides that, I don't believe them. But let's say they're being forthright, and they never did record -- they intended to."

Donahue, who's been an ICU nurse at St. Joe's for 23 years, said she thinks the secret cameras -- and even the new fisheye cameras, which can see into every corner of the unit and potentially violate a patient's privacy, she said -- are intended less for patient safety and more for keeping tabs on the nurses, to make them more compliant and productive. But the real problem in St. Joe's ICU, she said, is management.

"This ICU has not had an effective manager for over a decade," Donahue said. "So they are chopping off the nurses' heads. But where's their culpability? When is management going to step up and take some responsibility?"

The other nurse said she's given up waiting for an apology. "It's pointless now. They've created an extremely unhealthy work environment. It's very hostile, it's very punitive right now. You can palpate it. I go in now and, since I found out about those cameras, I kind of have this lump right here," she said, pressing on her solar plexus. "Just this knot right here."

Spy cam "smoke detector," exposed.
Spy cam "smoke detector," exposed.

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Comments (25)

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The idiocy of hospital management is unlimited. Just when you think you've heard it all. I'm a long time nurse (and former manager) at another north state hospital. Aside from the privacy issues, this whole thing is indicative of a failed management. You don't monitor what's going on on your night shift with spy cameras. A competent manager monitors what's going on by being engaged and involved - by having reliable shift charge nurses who set the appropriate tone for their unit. I've followed the story of that night shift crew for a while and it's obvious they were allowed to engage in inappropriate practices for years by managers who couldn't be bothered to manage. When that kind of party atmosphere develops on a unit, the blame is on a unit manager not doing their job.
Putting cameras up like this just totally destroys any possibility of a relationship of trust and respect between nurses and management.

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Posted by David RN on 09/17/2009 at 7:30 AM

Ask any ICU nurse at St. Joe if they were surprised about the firing of the PM shift nurses and they will unanimously tell you they were not. Unfortunately, many of the folks upset about this camera issue are the same people who kept silent about what they knew was occurring for years. Now they have the nerve to raise a stink over videos placed to answer a specific question - are patients safe in the ICU at night? Instead of looking at what they themselves might have done to address their own culture of silence regarding their night shift colleagues, they would rather divert attention on what an administration was forced to do after traveling nurses 'blew the whistle'. This article is a fine example of the CNA looking to blame "administration" for doing a job that they themselves should have done long ago (police yourselves). For a group so focused on patient safety, it appears that this situation is like the pot calling the kettle black.

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Posted by Klaus on 09/17/2009 at 8:43 AM

In respose to Klaus The situation with the night nurses in the ICU has been going on for over a decade. I assure you there was no silence on the part of the rest of the ICU nurses. Our complaints fell onto the deaf ears of management or the lack there of. A surprise night shift visit by a manager would be more appropriate and fair to all staff. Installing cameras that invade the privacy of the entire staff is deplorable and illegal!!

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Posted by ICU Nurses on 09/17/2009 at 2:31 PM

Klaus is klueless. What management did was wrong; immoral and illegal. Management neglected our ICU for more than a decade and now wants our union to be responsible for policing nurses? If our union is in charge of policing us, can they go ahead and approve pay raises as well? Glad you used "Klaus" as a moniker, instead of say "Joe Mark," because the German name is appropriate for someone who says management was "forced to do something" that was so wrong. Management should take responsibility for its wrong doing and apologize to us.

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Posted by Nurse Walter on 09/17/2009 at 2:42 PM

Thank God St Joe's prioritizes its patients over its staff. Someone has to protect the patient, especially after the events of the past- lack of attention, overmedicating to make their evening easier, etc. No one should worry about cameras in a hospital. It is public place where those in need need protection. It can only work in the favor of those most vulnerable.

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Posted by Patient in the Past on 09/17/2009 at 5:07 PM

It seems to me like the most important "right" here is the right of patients to proper care. Proper care, in my humble (and non-medically trained) opinion, does not involve having open-mic nights to "soothe" patients. In addition, cameras are NOT illegal in the ICU. For an example of cameras being implemented, see here: http://webexvsyugma.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/online-cameras-add-to-hospitals-new-medical-tools/. Of course, those were put in to keep an eye on the patients. Ensuring that the patients are safe by monitoring their nurses doesn't seem like it goes over the line to me. I'm sure the nurses are incredibly qualified, and who can say that he or she wouldn't go online during a long, overnight shift? But everyone knows that they SHOULDN'T. I shouldn't go online at work, sometimes I do. If I got reprimanded for it, it would be my fault, not my manager's fault for not controlling me. The nurses are the ones who need to take responsibility here. As for the camera in the locker room... who can say? Surely there was a legitimate reason for it to be put there as well. A Cal Supreme Court case notes that there is a limited expectation of privacy in the workplace. While I want to feel sorry for these surely otherwise qualified nurses who lost their jobs during a time when it is nearly impossible to find employment, I don't. They screwed up, and no matter who they try to blame, they are the only ones at fault.

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Posted by A on 09/17/2009 at 6:27 PM

Exactly. And I maintain that the patient's protection is the goal here. There was a worry that was being compromised, and the hospital took action to protect them. The patients come first, always. A good employee appreciates that a camera can prove that very fact.

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Posted by Patient in the Past on 09/17/2009 at 6:32 PM

SJH has had a hostile environment for many years. The Union was brought in to help protect the nurses from a hostile administration. I no longer work there, and could say a lot about the down hill trend in care at SJH. Not because the night shift played a guitar or got on-line, but because the management runs off competent nurses, which means nurses with little experience train new nurses. You will see very few employees with more than a few years under their belts. Any nurse that has worked at SJH for many years is a rarity. Nurses are taught to be patient advocates, not management's puppets. Those who speak out as patient or staff advocates don't work there long. They are usually asked to retire, or are subject to termination. I know of managers who abused and stole medication for personal use, yet still maintained their licsense and their positions. I guess they never went on the internet at work though....

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Posted by Nurse on 09/17/2009 at 8:19 PM

I had wonderful nurses in my recent ICU stay. They were knowledgeable and experienced, and made me and my family feel like I was in a safe place and in good hands medically. I would not hesitate to return to St Joseph's. Some good things are obviously going on there. I have no experience for what happened before this summmer, with the nurses in question.

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Posted by Patient in the Past on 09/17/2009 at 8:39 PM

Management has created a hostile environment of mistrust. Where are their ethics? How dare they put cameras in the break room where Nurses have been undressing since 1984 that I am aware of. Is management so out of touch they dont know where Nurses dress and undress in their locker rooms? Nurses do not condone bad behavior or poor nursing practice,and should not be held responsible for the poor judgement of a handfull of Nurses. I have a high standard for patient care, and patient advocacy is my highest priority as a Nurse. Its unfortunate we have to fight this administration so hard in order to provide safe patient care. I will continue to fight for my patients safety!

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Posted by Dedicated Nurse on 09/17/2009 at 9:07 PM

Thank goodness there are nurses like you. I found most I had in St Joe's to have your values and professionalsim. Too bad a few have to compromise the reputation of the group. What if the hospital had not taken action against those few to defend its patients? The community would certainly be complaining about that! Your type of nurse and this hospital seem to have the same goal. I hope you can work together.

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Posted by Patient in the Past on 09/17/2009 at 9:44 PM

Many valid points have been made in this exchange. I certainly understand the lay publics' desire for safe, therapeutic, competant nursing care. I have been delivering such care in SJH ICU for the past 23 years. I have served many patients and their families in this community, and have been priviledged to share in their heartache, fear, and end of life issues. I work long, arduous hours, many days without any break. I, like my colleagues, are responsible, caring members of the nursing profession. The nurses at SJH have been aware for many years that there are cameras in strategic locations in the parking lots, and the entrances and exits of the hospital. No nurse has an issue with these cameras. There have been cameras in ICU patient rooms for many years. We do not want our confused patients injuring themselves, pulling out life sustaining breathing tubes, or IVs. However, when the cameras are there to monitor the nurses, something is wrong with a management who would hire nurses that need to be watched by a camera. The management issues in this ICU predate by far the issues of the infamous, terminated ICU night shift nurses. But this is not the real issue. There is a locker/bathroom area immediately outside the ICU proper. It has a punch keyed door to allow entrance. ICU nurses have historical used this locker room to change clothes, pump their breasts, and have a private place to attend to private matters on their breaks. There are no patients in this locker room. And there is an expectaion of privacy in this room. In this room was installed a covert smoke detector/camera. This is what the nurses find disrespectful and appalling. There are laws that protect individual privacy. SJH states they did not know nurses changed their clothes in this room. For 23 years I have changed my clothes in this locker/break room. Nurses are owed an apology, and decent, hands-on, engaged, positive, "patient centered" management.

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Posted by Kathryn Donahue on 09/17/2009 at 11:26 PM

Well, I hope it can be worked out without costing the hospital an arm and a leg. We need our community to stand by our hospital and continue to make it stronger. It works to our benefit to assist them to improve instead of bringing them down. Employees historically have issues with management. They don't seem to understand each other in so many settings. In this case anything that benefits the patients needs to be looked at by both sides and given consideration over their own personal goals. I hope both sides do.

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Posted by Patient in the Past on 09/18/2009 at 6:43 AM

Bottom line..........someone did blow the whistle on the five that were fired. What choice did the hospital have but to prove or disprove the allegations. So it took cameras to accomplish, sorry but it requires evidence to terminate someone with cause. People keep losing sight of the fact that this a place for critically ill people, not Winco or the local coffee shop. People DIE and any nurse not complying with proper care should be removed. Questionable means - maybe. Mission accomplished - yes. One can't help but notice that the union did not go to bat for the five in question to have them reinstated. That tells me that the hospital, in all probality, had more on those nurses than was ever reported to the public. Lastly, THANK YOU to all the nurses who do their jobs properly and have nothing to fear from the eyes of a camera.

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Posted by Interested on 09/18/2009 at 6:01 PM

Again the writers of these comments are missing the point. The issue is not cameras in the ICU, where they have been for a long time, but cameras in locker/break rooms where nurses change clothes, and where there are no patients. The key word here is COVERT personal surveillence, in a private break area. This is illegal. No nurse is questioning keeping patients safe. Nurses object to being spied on when they change clothes, and attend to personal business on their breaks. I reiterate, this is disrespectful and appalling.

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Posted by Kathryn Donahue on 09/18/2009 at 8:25 PM

i believe the Lord Jesus Christ shall prevail in this matter. for those who truly believe in Our Savior, know that he shall set right all wrongs, though he may be a little late getting around to it. also, praise the Lord for cameras to do His work. "let the sinners be confounded and let the praiseworthy man be praised." Let the Bible be placed at every bedside! Faith heals!

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Posted by josh burgess on 09/18/2009 at 8:48 PM

Let the administration remember "Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You". Put cameras up in administration and listen in on the meetings where doctors' practices become bought and controlled, nurses and doctors are edged out if they do not "play along", and patients are only pawns to controlling health care dollars. Then you will see what the priorities of this large So. Calif. institution really are.

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Posted by bible beater on 09/19/2009 at 7:30 AM

As an ex-patient of St. Jo's and one thoroughly experienced in the type of "care" delivered there, I was severely injured recently and a friend offered to drive me to the St. Jo's emergency room. I demanded, and I mean DEMANDED, to be taken to Mad River, even tho I was in no condition to demand anything. So much for great "care"!

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Posted by Veteran on 09/19/2009 at 11:00 AM

Thank you for the honest patient account of your experiences. And thank you for stating the truth concerning large health care corporations,of which the St. Joseph Health System/St. Joe's is one. Nurses experience this corporate driven health care system on a daily basis, as they run as fast as they can to provide the safe, therapeutic, competant care nurses (most) wish to provide to the sick and dying. They trip over the Toyota Lean Hurdles the corporate system places before them. Direct care nurses are being given responsibility for more, and more non-patient duties. ie. HIT (Health Information Technology) Perhaps the individual with the bible could donate some time to the Pastorial Care Department, or hard working Volunteers at St. Joes. If you have questions, find a "direct care/bedside" RN working at St. Joes, and ask them.

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Posted by Patient Advocat RN on 09/19/2009 at 11:26 AM

As a member of the community who has received excellent care from St. Joseph's nurses over the years, I am totally confused as to what the administration there thinks it was doing putting secret cameras in a changing room. What does that have to do with patient care, which I thought was the Sister's mission in founding St. Joseph's? Maybe the nuns who run that corporation need to remember their motto of "dignity" and "justice" before they make any more mistakes like this.

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Posted by Betty Malloy on 09/19/2009 at 1:24 PM

Come on! Why would any nurse change their clothes in a public (to the staff) breakroom when there is a private bathroom available?

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Posted by Interested on 09/19/2009 at 1:33 PM

Because that's what Jesus would do. All part of the cloak of iniquity falling from the shoulders of sinners. Fucking nut heads.

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Posted by Eurekan on 09/21/2009 at 1:01 PM

theoretically, Jesus wouldn't need surveillance cameras, he is supposed to be omniscient.

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Posted by unanonymous on 09/22/2009 at 7:39 AM

I am still wondering where the apology to St Joseph Hospital was? When the ICU nurse article came out, saying how "big bad" Hospital management was and how unfair they were to the poor ICU nurses; yet after a legitimate firing- I never saw anything good about the hospital and how they were protecting patients. I never saw an apology to the hospital for how they jumped the gun and only wrote an article one-sided because the hospital respected the rights of their employees and were silent. I moved here a couple of years ago, and the hospital management has been supportive in change. Maybe along time ago they weren't which is why the union came in to assist. But now positive changes have been made and unfortunately the hospital felt the need to get "proof" of the misbehavings to protect patients and thankfully they did. I am proud to work at SJE and feel that they have supported all staff especially nurses. I feel shameful at some of the proproganda put out by the union and wish that it was more cohesive instead of such a struggle. I wish more that this journal wasn't so biased in its representation of issues.

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Posted by SJE RN on 09/25/2009 at 7:27 PM

SJE RN: We try and try to get as much as we can from the hospital's point of view every single time. But we can't put words in management's mouth.

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Posted by hanksims on 09/25/2009 at 8:08 PM
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