Gross Immorality Behavior against Demented Patients Requires Nursing License Revocation

Today’s blog concerns inappropriate nurse behavior, attitude, and conduct towards our senior citizens which will become the basis for disciplinary action and/or license revocation. In Leanne Vitteck, LPN, Petitioner v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, State Board of Nursing, the appeals court was asked to determine whether the State Board of Nursing properly permanently revoked a nurse’s license for gross immorality.

Here nurse Vitteck was accused to have forcibly removed a sensor monitor from the hand of the 89-year-old nursing home resident who suffered from dementia. Vitteck was accused of stating that she was “sick of being a f*cking babysitter” to this victim. Vitteck was also accused of allegedly threatening to “break the hands” of 97-year-old resident suffering from dementia. On a third occasion the same nurse threatened a wheelchair bound resident with physical violence.

Vitteck was formally charged with failing to respect and consider patient’s rights to freedom from psychological and physical abuse, failing to safeguard patients from incompetent, abusive or illegal practices, and engaging in gross immorality and being unfit or incompetent by reasons of habit negligence. These allegations are in violation of Sections 16(a)(1), (2), (3) and (8) of the Practical Nurse Law and Sections 21.148(a)(2) and (3) of the Nursing Board’s regulations, 49 Pa.Code §21.148(a)(2) and (3), which set forth the standards of nursing care. At the administrative hearing, the prosecutors presented eyewitness testimony to each physical and verbal confrontation. The witnesses confirmed the factual allegations of both the Vitteck’s behavior. Importantly, the witnesses also confirmed the excessively difficult patient, each of which was suffering from severe dementia.

The Board found the facts were relevant and appropriate to revoked permanently Vitteck’s license because she was “unfit and incompetent to practice by reason of habits, negligence and other causes and that the nurse engaged in unprofessional conduct by failing to respected consider patients rights to freedom of psychological and physical abuse and to safeguard her own patients from abusive practices.” The Board concluded that rehabilitative efforts, such as retraining or suspension would be futile and that the nurse’s profanity, verbal threats, and physical conduct together, not independent of each other, warranted revocation.

The appeals court was very clear in its conclusion that the Board’s decision coupling the physical and verbal abuse together warranted suspension. The court indicated that profanity in and of itself, along with verbal inexcusable, discourteous, and reprehensible behavior is not typically enough to establish gross incompetence. The court cited several cases indicating that professionals who use profanity towards patients, clients, and other professionals does not support a showing of professional incompetence. “While it may be unwise, it does not rise to amount of incompetence which warrants revocation of a professional’s license.”

However, the Court went on to say the Board was correct that in the context of long-term nursing facilities LPNs must “[r]espect and consider, while providing nursing care, the individual’s right to freedom from psychological and physical abuse” and “[a]ct to safeguard the patient from incompetent, abusive or illegal practice of any individual.” 49 Pa.Code §21.148(a)(2) and (3). Verbal abuse is defined as any use of oral written word gesturing language that willfully includes disparaging and derogatory terms to residents or their families or within hearing distance, regardless of age ability to comprehend. The board determined that Vitteck failed to respect and consider, while providing nursing care, the individuals’ right to freedom from psychological and physical abuse.

Importantly, the court affirmed the Board’s holding that merely slapping the patient’s hand, where the patient is in danger falling out of bed cannot by itself constitute a violation of the standard of nursing care where such care is “calculated to promote the patient’s well-being.” However the board held that factually Vitteck was not engaging in any nursing conduct that was calculated to promote the patient’s well-being. The Board concluded that the records reflected profanity in conjunction with physical inpatients and forceful and aggressive disciplinary behavior in no way would promote the well-being of a patient suffering from dementia.

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