Health care workers don't get enough credit for what they go through. From home health aides and registered nurses to physicians and psychiatrists, there is no telling what types of patients they'll care for in a given shift. Remember, health care workers see folks on their worst days, which means they may be extremely sick, scared, angry and even violent. That latter trait occurs all too often, putting care professionals' physical safety and emotional well-being at risk.
"A total of 154 shootings occurred at hospitals between 2000-2011."
A violent epidemic
According to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the health care industry lays claim to the second-most violent workplace, falling behind only law enforcement. The article reviewed other studies on the issue and found that this problem exists for just about every field in health care.
For example, 61 percent of providers who work in the home setting encounter violence each year, and 40 percent of psychiatrists suffer the same fate. However, emergency room workers may get the worst of it. All ER nurses endure verbal assaults, while 82.1 percent experience physical attacks. Additionally, violence happens to 78 percent of ER physicians.
These statistics demonstrate that health care workers are more likely than not to experience workplace violence. As Dr. James P. Phillips told Medscape Medical News, those who don't work in the medical industry may be surprised at these findings.
"Workplace violence with nurses, physicians and other health care workers is a much bigger problem than the general public knows," Phillips said. "Health care providers also seem to be unaware of the extent of the violence."
Phillips explained to Reuters that many of these violent acts involve weapons in addition to kicking, punching and spitting. A total of 154 shootings occurred at hospitals between 2000 and 2011, and attackers were motivated by anything from revenge against health care workers to mercy killings.
The reason behind these staggering statistics remains unclear. According to Phillips, the mental condition of the patients plays a major role in these high rates of violence. Specifically, conditions like dementia, substance abuse and delirium make people act in ways they wouldn't otherwise. He also blames environmental contributors like gang activity or poor food quality in medical facilities.
Medscape highlighted another perspective from University of Cincinnati in Ohio's Dr. Gordon Gillespie. While he didn't offer an alternative rationale for behavior, he did point out that many instances of violence related to patients who didn't have behavioral health issues were unreported. As such, the statistics were misleading in regards to both the prevalence of the issue and why it was occurring.
Underreporting also leads to the problem not getting enough attention. As Phillips explained to Reuters, this may be due to providers making excuses for their patients - blaming their actions on an altered mental state, for example. Otherwise, workers may not report the issue because they don't feel it will be taken seriously.
Address workplace violence in health care
Regardless of why medical professionals experience violence on the job, the health care industry must address these all too frequent assaults and threats. Of course, there is no foolproof solution to the problem, but certain strategies can better protect nurses, doctors, aides and other providers.
For instance, Reuters pointed out the solution to better track past instances of violence, and more effective patient chart designs may help. This way, employees could follow special protocol for patient care, such as avoiding being alone with the individual, for instance. Another possibility is making physical assaults on health care workers a felony. Overall, medical facilities must create an environment where workers feel comfortable and safe enough to report instances of abuse.
Raising awareness on health care workplace violence is the first step to combating the issue. Preventing assaults, whether verbal or physical, is vital to keeping medical professionals safe and healthy.