ChristianaCare doctors seek to ‘start healing process’ after resounding vote to form system’s first labor union

The union will include about 500 staff physicians at three hospitals in Delaware and Maryland and a stand-alone emergency center.

Listen 1:40
Dr. Amber Higgins

Dr. Amber Higgins says the toll of 70-hour weeks has led to staff shortages. (Courtesy of Amber Higgins)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Dr. Amber Higgins cherishes her work delivering babies and treating patients in the emergency room for ChristianaCare Health System.

However, Higgins has become increasingly dismayed that she can’t spend more time with patients or collaborate more with specialists about their care. She’s also concerned about the toll of 70-hour work weeks because of high turnover among physicians who often cite burnout when they resign.

So over the last six months, as staff doctors in Delaware’s largest health system and employer began an effort to form the first labor union in ChristianaCare’s 136-year history, Higgins became an enthusiastic supporter.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“A lot of departments work really extended hours every single week as just a necessity to be able to cover the clinical care duties that need to happen, just because we don’t have enough physicians to have to cover those shifts,” Higgins said.

That crusade culminated last week with a resounding 288-130 vote to unionize in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board. With 69% of doctors voting yes, the result sets the stage for negotiations and a contract for about 500 doctors on staff at three Delaware facilities — Christiana and Wilmington hospitals, the Middletown stand-alone emergency department — and Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland.

Christiana Hospital entrance
Christiana Hospital near Newark is Delaware’s largest hospital and the flagship facility of ChristianaCare. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The new ChristianaCare union is the largest private sector one for physicians in America, according to the Doctors Council Service Employees International Union, which has previously helped about 4,000 doctors unionize at both private and public systems in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere.

“I’m certainly hoping that we’ll have better work-life balance for physicians,’’ Higgins told WHYY News after the results were tabulated. “I’m hoping to be able to change our contracts so that we can attract more physician talent, retain more physician talent at ChristianaCare.”

Leaders at ChristianaCare, which has 11,600 staff members in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, had tried to dissuade the doctors from unionizing and would not agree to interviews about the effort before or after the vote.

Instead, ChristianaCare issued a three-sentence statement that said the company “respects the right of our physicians to determine whether or not they want to be represented by a union. We are proud of the outstanding care provided by ChristianaCare physicians to our patients and community. As always, our focus remains on our mission of serving our neighbors.”

The vote does not affect ChristianaCare’s physician assistants, nurses, and other caregivers and staff, including contracted physicians or those who have visiting hours at the hospitals. Nor are the doctors at ChristianaCare’s other facilities and clinics in Delaware and Pennsylvania affected.

The Doctors Council applauded the vote, saying the union could address patient safety concerns, erosion of physician-led care, increasing influence of corporate medicine, and the “moral injury caused by the pressure to prioritize productivity and profit over patient needs and values.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Dr. Frances Quee, president of the Doctors Council, predicted the “historic” ChristianaCare vote would serve as a catalyst “for physicians around the country to organize to regain control of their practices and fight for their patients.”

Dr. Ragu Sanjeev, a ChristianaCare internist who helped lead the unionization effort, said he wasn’t surprised by the vote tally, considering that about 70% of the physicians had voted on May 16 to authorize the election. He noted that ChristianaCare added Union Hospital into the mix of doctors that initially only included staff physicians in Delaware, but that didn’t affect the outcome.

“We are all excited to actually start working with the hospital management,’’ Sanjeev said, “to make this hospital system better for the community and also take care of the people who take care of the people.”

Dr. Ragu Sanjeev
Dr. Ragu Sanjeev, an internist who helped lead the effort, said doctors look forward to good-faith bargaining. (Courtesy of Ragu Sanjeev)

Sanjeev noted that the process was “contentious” at times and that after the vote was tallied, department chairs who were in the room with union organizers said nothing.

“We didn’t even get a congratulations from the hospital management or any of the department chairs. They just walked out of the room,’’ Sanjeev said. “However, we do want to reach out to them with an olive branch and start the healing process.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal