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Understanding patient abandonment for nurses

It has likely happened to every nurse at one time or another. A patient files a complaint against you claiming that you abandoned his or her care. This may have happened if you got detained with another patient and the condition of the first patient declined. Perhaps your shift ended and you forgot to pass the patient's care to another nurse. Maybe the care the patient needed was not part of your training or skills. However, are these examples of abandonment?

Whatever the situation, when the patient claims abandonment, you are at risk of involvement with the California Board of Registered Nursing. This means investigators will probably examine the details of the case and decide whether it warrants disciplinary actions. If you are facing charges of patient abandonment, it may benefit you to have a better understanding of how the Board defines this offense.

A matter for the Board or your boss?

Too often, what a patient, nurse leader or the administration sees as abandonment is simply an employment issue. For example, if you fail to show up for your shift or refuse to take a mandatory overtime assignment, the Board is not likely to interfere, and your administration should deal with the situation. Abandonment of a patient requires two important factors:

  • A relationship between you and the patient exists because you accepted responsibility for the patient's care.
  • You terminated the relationship without warning or authorization even though the patient still needed care.

Abandonment places patient well-being at risk, unlike employment issues, which may result in actions by your superior. Some examples of abandonment include the following:

  • A nurse may leave at the end of a shift when no licensed professional has arrived to take over the care of patients.
  • A nurse may fall asleep during his or her shift.
  • A nurse may fail to file reports mandated when he or she suspects abuse or neglect of a patient.
  • A nurse attempts to perform patient care under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • A nurse passes patient care duties to a caregiver who is not qualified.

In some cases, you may find yourself in difficult positions if your leader assigns you to provide care you are not qualified to give, to care for a patient you feel is dangerous or to perform procedures that may harm the patient. If you accept the assignment and later decide you cannot continue, this may be considered abandonment.

When you are in such situations or any that may result in complaints against you, involvement with the Board or danger to your patients, it is in your best interests to ask for help and make careful documentation of the circumstances in case it leads to disciplinary action.

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