Violence Against Healthcare Workers

Recently, Emergency Department staff at the Royal Melbourne Hospital produced and released a shocking video highlighting the violence and aggression that they face, every shift.

Their hope is that this raises awareness of the occupational violence that they face, and will lead the charge for change.

Unfortunately, violence, aggression and even in the worst cases, death, are not uncommon problems faced by those working in the healthcare industry. This includes those working in city and rural areas, with many pushing for changes to better protect these workers.

These proposed measures include better protection for rural and remote healthcare workers, specifically nurses following the death of outback nurse Gayle Woodford in March of 2016. Following Ms Woodford’s death a petition for Gayle’s Law, looking to better protect outback nurses, gained momentum. The focus of this was to overhaul remote nursing operations, including the abolishment of single nurse postings and the implementation of the mandatory employment of two staff members for all after-hour’s callouts.

Tragically, Ms Woodford is not the only healthcare professional to lose her life in the line of duty.

In mid-2017 a Melbourne surgeon, Patrick Pritzwald-Stegmann, died after an alleged assault occurred in the foyer of Box Hill Hospital. Furthermore, in 2014 neurosurgeon Michael Wong was stabbed in the foyer of Footscray Hospital. Thankfully Dr Wong survived the attack, but there are far too many healthcare professionals who weren’t as fortunate.

These tragic deaths are only two in a long history of violent and aggressive behaviour towards those trying to help others and save lives – with research showing that these workers, especially those in the Emergency Department, faced with some form of violence or aggression every shift.

The facts around the levels of violence and aggression faced by these workers are horrifying and inescapable. One recent survey found that 43% of the 1,200 emergency doctors interviewed were physically assaulted in the previous 12 months and that almost 90% had been verbally threatened.

Further to this, a different, large scale study that investigated 8 EDs across Australia and New Zealand found that verbal aggression has been experienced by 97.9% of respondents in the last 12 months, and physical aggression by 92.2%.

One of the biggest contributors to these acts is, unsurprisingly, drugs and alcohol – more specifically ice. This particular methamphetamine is a growing epidemic in many areas of Australia with research showing that 1 in 100 Australians are addicted to the harmful drug.

Unfortunately, the use of both legal and illegal substances, can translate into erratic and violent behaviour, shorter fuses and generally much less predictable behaviour in patients (and family members or friends). This is reinforced in the research which shows that 97.9% of ED nurses and doctors experienced alcohol related verbal abuse in the last 12 months.

The statistics are staggering and evidence the disturbing trend that affects these workers isn’t just an issue faced by Victorian or NSW healthcare workers: violence against healthcare workers is a nation-wide epidemic.  It reaches into all communities – affecting city, urban and rural healthcare workers alike.

Different States have responded to this issue in different ways, all looking to tackle the culture that surrounds this violence and aggression, as well as the acts themselves. In early 2016 the Queensland Government, in recognition of the violence against healthcare workers and the 3300 healthcare workers assaulted in the previous financial year, launched a $1.35 million awareness campaign.

The campaign focused on the violence and aggression that these workers face, with a range of ads reinforcing that this isn’t okay and is not part of these workers’ jobs. This was tied into criminal penalties, whereby any person found guilty of assaulting a healthcare worker can face up to 14 years imprisonment. However there appears to be no mandatory minimum sentence, unlike those which exist in Victoria.

While these increased sentences and minimum mandatory sentences may reduce second offences, there is much debate about how effective measures like this are in reducing the offences themselves. This is particularly pertinent given that weighing up the consequences of ones actions requires rational consideration and a large percentage of these incidents involve drugs and/or alcohol, which inhibit rational thinking.

In light of this, there is a push for more ‘on-the-ground’ changes for prevention rather than those that come after the fact as punishment and to enforce the zero-tolerance policies that are meant to be in place – such as refusing treatment to those who are threatening (where the injuries are non-life threating).

It’s difficult to know what the answers may be, however it’s clear that steps to be taken must involve those who are most exposed to these incidents. Those who experience this type of behaviour far too regularly in their line of work are those who will have the most informed point of view to provide possible initiatives for change.

Aside from this, and while these changes are being discussed and hopefully quickly implemented, it’s critical that the workplaces and employer/s, in many cases Queensland Health or other private Healthcare operators, take all necessary precautions to protect these workers, both in preventing these incidents and in handling the aftermath of them. This may likely include, risk assessments, training for staff in handling these situations, implementation of protective measures, or security steps, and in the aftermath, debriefings and counselling, as well as medical treatment.

Unfortunately, we too often see the aftermath of workplace assault and abuse, both physical injuries and psychological ones.

Where the employer has failed in their duty to provide a safe workplace, potentially by failing to put in place safety procedures, proper training, security steps, or other protective measure or otherwise taking appropriate measures that could have prevented the assault, or by failing to provide adequate treatment and support following an event, the injured individual may be entitled to compensation.

If this is something that has happened to you or someone you know, you can find out more about your options to claim by calling our team submitting any form on our website, or chatting to our team. You can also read more about Workers Compensation Claims here.

Unfortunately, it’s all too obvious that the violence, aggression and abuse faced by healthcare workers is a nation-wide epidemic that continues to plague these workers in the face of all current initiatives. We can only hope that more is done, quickly, in order to prevent these incidents and better protect those who save lives and care most for all of us.

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