Health care workers are heroes, so why isn’t more done to prevent attacks on them?

Health care workers are heroes, so why isn’t more done to prevent attacks on them?

By Tyler Christman

Health care workers are our heroes. This phrase may be the most uniting thing to come out of the pandemic. It’s the one idea that people, regardless of political affiliation or stance on coronavirus policy, seem to agree upon: that the people who donned gowns and respirators, and risked their own well-being to help others, deserve our praise.

However, this acknowledgment rings hollow to those who work in the health care field. While the public heaps praise on the nurses, doctors and first responders, the workers themselves need more than just words of affirmation. Better pay, safer patient-staffing ratios and, above all else, the safety to do their jobs without fear of physical violence.

In July, a paramedic and nurse were stabbed by a patient in the emergency room at SSM Health DePaul. The paramedic was stabbed multiple times resulting in stitches and staples across her back and the nurse was stabbed in the neck. Thankfully, both of the injured workers survived, but many believe that the incident itself was preventable. The staff asked for more stringent security measures for years leading up to this incident. Interviews with DePaul employees suggest that the hospital never took steps to address security concerns.

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The safety of the providers was only prioritized following the bad publicity in the aftermath of the stabbing. DePaul was forced to take measures to save face. This includes hiring more security guards and installing metal detectors within a week of the stabbing. Too little, too late to help those already recovering from injuries.

Lack of safety support is not just an issue at DePaul. In August, two nurses were assaulted at Mercy South Hospital. One nurse suffered a concussion as a result of the attack and the other nurse was pregnant at the time leading to worries about possible pregnancy complications. More recently, an emergency medical technician who worked in the emergency room of Southeast Hospital was attacked by a patient.

The technician suffered a terrible bite to the arm that drew blood and left his entire forearm bruised. The injury was in the technician becoming a patient in the emergency room and was quickly followed by a pink slip from Southeast Hospital. The official reason: the technician did not do enough to deescalate the situation, and when he fought back against the patient, who was actively biting him, it was too aggressive. Southeast Hospital appears to expect their employees to weigh the need for employment versus their need for personal safety.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people who work in health care and social services are five times more likely to experience workplace-related violence than the average worker. In 2018, health care workers made up 73% of all nonfatal workplace injuries due to violence.

The perception among many health care workers is that it is just another part of the job to deal with abuse. Minor violent incidents happen daily and are rarely prosecuted by the police. In cases of more serious assaults, hospitals are reluctant to share patient information with law enforcement due to concerns of violating privacy laws. Hospitals often prioritize minimizing blowback from potentially litigious patients than they are with offering full-throated support for their employees’ safety. Therefore, many workers are afraid to even stand up for themselves and fight back.

The House of Representatives recently passed a bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, which aims to require employers in the health care and social service industries to implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan. The bill currently sits in the Senate, where it will be debated and ultimately take form. However, even if the bill passes a vote in the Senate and is signed into law by the president it would take years to be implemented nationally.

The reality is that health care workers are unnecessarily vulnerable today. Hospitals need to step up the protections in place for their employees now, and not just wait until they are forced to act by law. Hospitals are run like a business, and security measures bring in no profit. The public is shocked when major assaults make the news, but the everyday violence experienced by the average health care worker is dismissed, diminished and ignored. It is only when the general public is made aware of this issue that hospitals will be incentivized to make the necessary changes. It is up to the public to demand that the health care and the justice system do more to protect those workers society has decided to label as heroes.

Tyler Chestman is host of The Churchman Conversation podcast and blog.