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There will be blood

Bill Coffin | September 5, 2017

On July 26, what started as a life-and-death medical emergency turned into a legal dispute that drew nationwide condemnation and underscored the high price that sometimes comes with sticking with good compliance procedures and professional ethics.

It began with a police chase in northern Utah that ended in a crash that killed the fleeing suspect and nearly killed another motorist who was, in turn, taken to the University of Utah Hospital’s burn center for treatment. There, a Salt Lake City detective named Jeff Payne—who is specifically trained by the Salt Lake City to draw blood from patients, demanded a blood sample from the patient. Nurse Alex Wubbels cited hospital policy, which prevented the drawing of blood in this case because the patient could not consent (having been placed in a medically induced coma prior to arriving at the hospital.), Detective Payne did not have an electronic warrant, and the patient was not under arrest. This policy was agreed to by the Salt Lake City PD, leaving Nurse Wubbels with little room to maneuver. Despite Detective Payne’s demands for a blood sample, she could not comply with his demand without breaching compliance with the hospital’s own policy.

Wubbels also acted  according to the code of ethics established by the American Nursing Association, which calls upon nurses to uphold the rights, health, and safety of their patients. Furthermore, she acted within the law. Utah changed its implied consent law in 2007, so that a warrant is now necessary to draw blood from an unconscious patient. Plus, the Supreme Court has set a precedent that ultimately sides with Wubbels, not Payne.

None of this seemed to matter to Detective Payne, who, in body camera footage recently released by Wubbels, loses his patience upon being told his demand violates the hospital’s policy. He suddenly arrests Wubbels, cuffs her, and manhandles her out to his squad car, all while she screams for help. Wubbels, being a trained police phlebotomist and a part-time ambulance driver, should have been more than aware of the limitations of his demand and the lack of justification for his actions. And yet, act he did. Thankfully, the entire event was caught on camera, and the footage preserved so that Wubbels’ legal representation could acquire a copy.

Wubbels did not immediately go public with this footage, but released it when she felt her complaints about this incident were not taken seriously by University of Utah security, whose officers were on the scene but refused to intervene on Wubbels’ behalf.

Predictably, the video footage caused a social media firestorm that has resulted in widespread condemnation from Utah’s governor, Salt Lake City’s mayor, the American Nursing Association, and perhaps most telling of all, the police department of Rigby, Idaho. It turns out the the patient in the burn center, was a reserve police officer in Rigby, and the Rigby PD praised Wubbels for standing by their injured colleague, and protecting his rights, as he was under suspicion of no crime.

As a result of this incident, Detective Payne and one other SLCPD officer have been placed on leave, and the department’s policies regarding blood draws have been updated so they are in harmony with the hospital’s policy, and officers have been trained on the update. As for the University of Utah, none of its officers have been disciplined, but they have received additional training.

None of this reverses Wubbels’ appalling treatment, and even though she has not filed suit just yet, that door remains open pending how the SLCPD treats the officers involved, at the very least. Until this is fully resolved, it remains an acid test for what it means to uphold a code of compliance and a code of ethics, in the face of excessive opposition and even personal jeopardy. The shock on Wubbels’ face when taken into custody suggests she never thought her conversation with Payne would go the way that it did, but it also illustrates the courage she showed by refusing to bend to Payne’s increasingly aggressive demands. Sometimes, people hide behind the rules to justify doing the wrong thing, or to defend not doing the right thing. Here, Wubbels wasn’t hiding behind anything. She and her supervisors had explained the deal to Payne and his supervisor, and her first impulse was to serve the well-being of her patient. This is a moment few of us will ever face, but it’s a true test of how steadfast one might be to the standards they have sworn to uphold.

We seem to be in an age where rule of law is both becoming increasingly rigid and increasingly wobbly all at the same time. That is worrisome. For the entire compliance community, the rules, codes, standards, and practices they uphold all speak to a desire to serve the greatest good, both for their own organization and for society at large. When a good faith effort to live by that weighty obligation puts one at risk of being cuffed by an overeager police officer, it shows just how much those serving compliance have to lose simply by doing their job.

Compliance professionals often work without the acclaim or appreciation of their peers. That comes with the territory. They often are seen as a cost or a speed bump, rather than a value-builder, or a protector of the long-term health of an organization. But compliance and ethics matter; they matter in this case with Wubbels, and they matter when compliance professionals carry out the duties with which they have been charged. We are reminded in this case just how high the stakes can get, but they are still worth doing. And you are still worth noting for doing them. Keep up the great work, everyone.