Nearly 75 percent of all workplace assaults happen in health care, researchers find

Statistics likely understate the problem

Health care workers experience workplace violence at a rate far higher than the national average—and the problem needs to be confronted directly, according to a review article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

About one in five shootings involve ill relatives

James Phillips, of Harvard Medical School and the Department of Emergency Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, reviewed recent research on health care workplace violence. What he found startled him: "Health care workplace violence is an underreported, ubiquitous, and persistent problem that has been tolerated and largely ignored," he says.

For instance, according to the research:

  • Nearly 75 percent of all workplace assaults between 2011 and 2013 occurred in the health care industry;
  • Between 2000 and 2011, 154 shootings resulted in an injury on the grounds of U.S. hospitals;
  • 80 percent of emergency medical workers experience physical violence during their careers;
  • 39 percent of nurses report verbal assaults each year; and
  • 13 percent of nurses report physical abuse each year.

What's more, incidents of workplace violence in health care often go unreported. For instance, according to recent research, only 30 percent of nurses and 26 percent of physicians who experience workplace violence report the incidents. Perhaps as a result, "Health care providers also seem to be unaware of the extent of the violence," Phillips says.

"One reason health care providers are reluctant to report these [incidents] is that we have compassion for our patients, and we don't want to treat patients like they're criminals or the enemy," he tells Reuters Health. "So we probably make excuses when we shouldn't."

How to better protect nurses: ANA pushes for ratios, violence prevention

Phillips says the problem is getting worse, and health care providers need to be more aggressive in confronting the problem. Some options he suggests for reducing violence include:

  • Expanding the use of hospital metal detectors;
  • Investing in security infrastructure, such as security guards and security cameras;
  • Encouraging clinicians and staff to report all incidents of violence; and
  • Passing legislation and updating accrediting guidelines to require violence prevention policies.

Ultimately, the health care industry may to need to shift its mindset related to violence, Phillips writes. "Like all other workers, health care employees have a right to be safe on the job" (Ferguson, FierceHealthcare, 4/29; Emery, Reuters, 4/28).

How can you help keep hospital staff safe?

Workplace violence is an increasing concern for hospital HR leaders. The Advisory Board interviewed Ken Bukowski, VP of health care at Allied Barton Security Services, to discuss key issues surrounding hospital workplace violence and action steps HR leaders can take for prevention.

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