For people who are ill or wounded, there’s usually no place to be that’s safer than the hospital. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for those who work hard every day to heal and tend to the sick and injured at these healthcare facilities. Because they deal with people who are hurt, scared, angry, or confused on a daily basis, healthcare professionals risk being assaulted or injured on the job every day.
Assault on healthcare workers is a growing issue in the United States. Registered nurse Angela Simpson recounts an incident involving a dementia patient who punched her while she was trying to help him with his IV. When he went in for another punch, Simpson managed to dodge the blow and walked away with minimal injuries. Still, the incident shook her and eventually helped motivate her to create the Silent No More Foundation to raise awareness of violence against healthcare workers.
Many others have not been so lucky. A huge percentage of healthcare workers have been assaulted on the job at some point—about 1 in 4 for nurses who work on the front lines with patients every day. Some medical professionals, like Simpson, walk away with little more than a bump on the head and a sense of alarm. Others suffer permanent damage or even lose their lives.
Because the dangers involved with their job are increasing and becoming more severe, healthcare workers are finally speaking up and building organizations like Simpson’s Silent No More to raise awareness for assault, change cultural expectations, and increase protections for workers in the field.
A Changing Caregiving Environment
Demographics in the United States are changing, as is access to care in different types of healthcare facilities. With the introduction of new reforms, more people have access to health insurance and health care professionals must learn to work within an overloaded system and engage with a wider variety and volume of patients. Misunderstandings, anger from patients or their families, and other factors are major causes of assaults on healthcare professionals.
Attitudes toward healthcare are changing as well. The rise of healthcare consumerism means that personalized medicine is on the rise and patients have more control over their care. Although that can improve outcomes, it is also facilitating a change in culture that may be putting nurses and other healthcare professionals at risk.
A Touchy Issue
In most other professions, assault is very unusual. For the few other fields involving a high risk of assault, like law enforcement, workers are trained to defend themselves and given protective equipment to minimize any injuries that a citizen may try to inflict. Healthcare workers, however, often have no way to defend themselves or even any way to reliably call for help.
Pressing charges can be a touchy issue too, especially in settings like a psychiatric ward. Many workers feel like they can’t speak up about the violence they experience for a variety of reasons. Silent No More and other organizations are lobbying to criminalize assault against healthcare workers, and some states have already created laws to address the issue.
However, many healthcare workers don’t want to press charges. Ultimately, they want to help patients get better and often prefer to use other tools, such as restraining orders or flagging a patient’s records, to prevent further incidents. This is partially due to the culture of caregiving. Even the idea of pressing charges makes many professionals in the field uncomfortable or causes them to feel guilty.
There is also often a lot of ambiguity surrounding the assaults that take place in healthcare settings, further complicating the issue. Some patients are confused and disoriented or act out due to a medical condition. For this reason, it can be difficult for healthcare professionals to know when to press charges for the safety of themselves and others.
Violence Against Women Is a Global Epidemic
Although the gender makeup of the nursing profession is changing, the field is still dominated by female healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, women are more likely to be assaulted as a whole than men, with violence against women proving to be a global epidemic. Nearly 30% to 35% of women around the world have been victims of assault, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Women in the healthcare profession not only have to contend with the reality of frequent violence against caregivers in medical settings but also cultural tendencies involving violence towards women. This leaves female healthcare workers vulnerable to attacks from patients and gives them few options for protecting themselves.
Violence Is a Growing Problem in the Caregiving Setting
While it might seem like violence in hospitals and other medical settings is something that’s been going on since the beginning of modern healthcare (which is certainly true, to some extent), the hard truth is that it’s been getting worse in recent years. Patients and their families often physically and verbally abuse nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals, who have often been made to feel like these threats are just part of working in the field.
For many years, caregivers have felt obligated to remain silent about the issue, especially since many have legitimate concerns about being blamed for incidents of abuse and violence either directly or indirectly. However, escalating violence has urged many healthcare professionals to begin speaking up and demanding more from both their workplaces and the legal system to protect them.
Promoting a Safer Workspace for Healthcare Employees
Now that nurses and other workers in the healthcare sector are becoming Silent No More, it’s time to promote a safer workplace for healthcare employees. Some hospitals are already taking steps to protect their staff by implementing measures like metal detectors at facility entrances, plainclothes security staff, and panic buttons for employees.
While these are important steps for protecting workers, there’s more that needs to be done. To create safer workplaces for healthcare professionals, cultural shifts will be necessary. Nurses should be trained to spot warning signs of violence and should be empowered to defend themselves when necessary. They should also feel supported in reporting incidents of violence when they occur. These cultural shifts will be necessary to create lasting, positive change.
The silence in the face of workplace assault that has been harming healthcare professionals needs to end for good. Caregivers give their hearts and souls to their patients. It’s crucial to keep them safe while they do this important work.