SB70: Provo senator’s bill would allow nurses to pronounce a person dead

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill sponsored by a Provo senator which would allow nurses to “pronounce” a person’s death has passed a legislative committee and is waiting to be heard by the Utah Senate.

SB70, proposed by Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, would allow physicians to certify a death within 24 hours after a nurse had pronounced a person dead and declare the time of death. Currently, there’s a difference between “declaring” death, “pronouncing” death, and “certifying” death. Emergency medical technicians or police officer may declare death, but the actual date and time that goes on a death certificate is the time a person is pronounced dead.

Under current Utah State law, only a physician or coroner may pronounce and certify a death. The bill would allow nurses to pronounce death, while the physician certifies, but nurses would have to follow guidelines. This bill, if it becomes law, would give nurses from hospice agencies, home health agencies, and skilled nursing facilities the ability to pronounce the death of someone.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, approved of the motivation behind the bill. She has been addressing this issue with mortuaries, since they can not move forward in the funeral process before getting a signature from the physician.

“You’d be surprised by how hard it is to get a signature,” Escamilla said. “My coworker’s father passed away, and his family had to wait for a doctor to sign off close to a week. They had to put everything on hold.” SB70 intends to streamline this process by allowing nurses to pronounce death. This may allow families to move forward with making plans for a funeral.

“In 2007, my father went into the hospital due to a lung-related illness,” said Kory Holdaway, a consulting member of the Homecare and Hospice Association of Utah. “After a week, the hospital released him and arranged for hospice care. We had a nurse that came into the home and provided critical treatment for him during this time.” When Holdaway’s father passed away, the nurse was there within 30 minutes. She made the determination that he was dead, and then contacted the hospice care physician immediately.

“It was swift,” Holdaway said. “That’s why this bill is necessary. Having the pronouncement of death done in a timely manner, in a way that respects the family and people involved, it means a lot.”

Like Holdaway, many individuals find comfort in professional nurses providing the necessary medical treatment for a dying family member in the home. A doctor may not necessarily be available to answer patient questions, but a home care nurse is in touch with day to day functions.

Currently, without a death pronoucement, there can be substantial delays if a physican cannot be reached in a timely manner. For example, a physician working in a large hospice may have several deaths or passings during the same evening. He or she would need to be contacted either in person or by phone.

“That’s the practice often that occurs; the nurse contacts the physician, describes the situation that there are no vital signs, and then the physician will pronounce,” said Matt Hansen, executive director for the Homecare and Hospice Association of Utah. “The physician many times is not even there in person. He or she doesn’t have eyes on the person, but has to be the one to pronounce.” SB70 is meant to be protective of the nursing industry as well as the medical industry.

A unanimous vote in the Senate committee passed SB70 with a favorable recommendation.

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