Healthcare workers deserve protection from violence
Jthere is no place for violence in civil society. Yet stabbings, shootings, threats and other violent attacks have become appallingly common, including in US hospitals and other health care facilities.
As leaders of national associations representing hospitals and emergency physicians, we know the intimidation and violence experienced daily by medical professionals. Making it a federal offense could help prevent it.
Nurses, doctors and other frontline staff in American hospitals, emergency departments and healthcare systems are experiencing high rates of violence. A new survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) has found that more than eight in 10 emergency physicians believe the rate of violence in emergency departments has increased, with 45% saying it has risen significantly over the past of the past five years. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A survey of registered nurses working in hospitals showed that during the pandemic, 44% said they had experienced physical abuse and 68% said they had experienced verbal abuse. This creates an extremely difficult environment in what are supposed to be places of healing.
Despite the almost daily occurrence of abuses directed at health care workers, no federal law protects them.
In late 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged the shocking rise in violence against airline employees and ordered the US Department of Justice to prioritize prosecutions against individuals who carry out attacks. Members of Congress are now weighing a bill to help protect American healthcare workers.
The bipartisan Safety from Violence for Health Care Employees Act (HR 7961), sponsored by Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), would assault or l intimidation of health care workers in the workplace a federal offense.
This bill would also strengthen the ability of hospitals and health systems to prevent and reduce violence against staff. By establishing a new grant program, the bill would encourage hospitals to upgrade their security systems, better train staff to respond to violent incidents and coordinate more effectively with law enforcement to combat the threats.
Preventing violence in hospitals is the right thing to do for everyone’s safety and has important implications for the delivery of care. Hostility in the workplace makes it difficult for healthcare workers to focus on their mission of providing patient care.
Of particular concern is that the CAPE survey found that nearly nine in 10 emergency physicians believe that violence in emergency departments negatively affects patient care. When it comes to medical emergencies — from gunshot wounds and car accidents to ruptured appendages and overdoses — time is of the essence and every second counts. Medical personnel must focus 100% on providing life-saving care without worrying about their own safety.
Physical and verbal attacks also demoralize healthcare workers. Even the threat of violence contributes to burnout and exacerbates high levels of staff turnover. Hospitals and health systems are facing an unprecedented shortage of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Unless violence is mitigated by putting in place safeguards, it will become increasingly difficult to retain and recruit staff.
No one should have to work in an environment in which they feel threatened and despised. We applaud lawmakers who support the SAVE Act and urge Congress to enact it. Emergency doctors, nurses and all hospital professionals work around the clock to provide quality care to all who need it, and they deserve to be protected from violence when they do.
Mary Beth Kingston is a Registered Nurse, Chief Nursing Officer at Advocate Aurora Health, and Board Member of the American Hospital Association. Christopher S. Kang is an emergency physician based in Tacoma, Washington, and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.