October 1, 2021

Violence against health care workers is surging. Here's how hospitals are responding.

Daily Briefing

    Violence against health care workers has surged amid increased Covid-19 hospitalizations and widespread misinformation about vaccines and treatments—leading some hospitals to implement new security measures, such as panic buttons, to protect their employees.

    Infographic: Strategies to stop workplace violence before it occurs

    Health care workers face increased violence

    Violence against health care workers has become more widespread since the pandemic began, the Washington Post reports. A February report from the Insecurity Insight and the University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center found that more than 1,100 threats or violent acts against health care workers and facilities occurred worldwide in 2020, with around 400 of those attacks related to Covid-19.

    According to Susie Keller, CEO of the Idaho Medical Association, misinformation and the overwhelming numbers of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations were to blame for increased hostility toward health care providers.

    "Misinformation is causing people to not get vaccinated, and then when they get very sick, misinformation is increasing animosity toward health care providers because they believe lies about what is the proper treatment for Covid," Keller said.

    Separately, Caiti Bobbitt, a spokesperson for Kootenai Health in Idaho, said some of the hospital's employees are too scared to go to the grocery store in their scrubs due to hurtful rumors and accusations from people angry about the pandemic.

    "Our health care workers are almost feeling like Vietnam veterans, scared to go into the community after a shift," Bobbitt said.

    Brian Whitlock, president of the Idaho Hospital Association, confirmed similar incidents have occurred across the state. "We've had reports of physical violence, verbal abuse, demands for alternative treatment that are not acceptable or approved," he said. "And those become very difficult conversations to have as the patient continues to decompensate."

    Health care workers in Missouri have also faced increased aggression and violence from disgruntled patients and their family members. According to data from Cox Medical Center Branson, the number of "security incidents" at the hospital increased from 94 in 2019 to 162 in 2020. In addition, the number of assaults increased from 40 to 123, and the number of injuries to health care workers increased from 17 to 68 during the same period.

    "To see that these numbers are doubling, tripling, and continuing to go up especially the physical ... it's very unnerving," Angie Smith, the hospital's patient safety facilitator, said.

    Similarly, hospitals in Texas have reported an increasing number of assaults on their workers, with officials saying they believe the incidents are also largely motivated by a surge in Covid-19 hospitalizations, AP/Modern Healthcare reports.

    According to Jane McCurley, chief nursing executive for Methodist Healthcare System, the hospital's employees have been "cursed at, scream at, threatened with bodily harm, and even had knives pulled on them."

    Hospitals introduce measures to protect their workers

    In response to the growing violence, many hospitals are implementing new measures to help protect their workers.

    For instance, Cox Medical Center Branson plans to add panic buttons to the identification badges of up to 400 employees. According to the hospital, staff members can use the button to alert security guards if they are having trouble with a patient or someone else. The button will activate a tracking system to help security find the staffer who needs help.

    Ashley Blevins, a nurse at the hospital, said, "It's nice we have the chance to press our button and security knows exactly where we are and if we end up having to chase a patient down they'll know where our last location is."

    A similar system was tested at CoxHealth's Springfield hospital last year, AP/Modern Healthcare reports, and Alan Butler, the health system's director of safety and security, said the panic buttons "fill a critical void."

    "Personal panic buttons are one more tool in the battle to keep our staff safe and further demonstrate this organization's commitment to maintaining a safe work and care environment," Butler said.

    States and other organizations are also working to provide resources to protect health care workers. For instance, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Idaho State Police have plans to increase security at hospitals if needed, and the Missouri Hospital Association offers training to help workers recognize and de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

    However, many providers say they are more concerned about people who are spreading misinformation rather than patients who believe it.

    "We're not frustrated with the misinformed," Whitlock said. "We're frustrated with those who propagate the misinformation because it's costing people their lives."

    Separately, Keller said physicians are "not mad at the patients, they're angry at the folks who are spreading the misinformation—those folks absolutely bear responsibility for the deaths and disability we're seeing." (AP/Modern Healthcare, 9/29 [1]; AP/Modern Healthcare, 9/29 [2]; Mark, Washington Post, 9/30)

    Strategies to stop workplace violence before it occurs

    Download the infographic

    violence

    Workplace violence is common in health care settings around the world. In many regions, incidents of violence are on the rise. Yet despite the increase in point‑of‑care violence, many health care leaders are unsure of the best way to address this complex issue. While disruptive behaviour and violence cannot be prevented outright, these four steps detail how to make frontline staff feel safe—and actually stay safe—at work.

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