Doctors, nurses concerned about increase in hospital violence and shootings

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — Violence at health care establishments has long been a problem, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an all-time high of reported incidents.

The hospital shooting in Tulsa earlier this week, and a lawsuit filed earlier this week following a shooting at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, are highlighting a growing problem of violence in health care.

Some medical professionals already battered and worn from the pandemic said staffing levels and profits are to blame, leaving them vulnerable to violence.

And a third of those surveyed, say their employers ignored reported violent incidents.

“I was under a pile of people and he finally let go of my neck. He completely removed my hair,” said Aja Harper, a nurse who was attacked by a patient.

Harper said the attack caught her off guard and a portion of her hair extensions were pulled from her head.

“He just snapped,” she said.

Attacks like Harper’s, which happened in 2018, are happening more frequently.

According to a recent survey of hundreds of hospitals, violent crime in hospitals was up more than 20% in 2020. Assaults were up nearly 30%.

Data from 2021 has not yet been released but nurses and doctors say many incidents of workplace violence go unreported.

“Health care employees are five times more likely to be a victim of aggravated assault than any other industry,” said Paul Sarnese with the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety.

Maureen May with the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, or PSNAP, said staff shortages at hospitals are a major contributor of the increased violence.

“It has escalated and it’s worsened with the pandemic. There are a lot of angry people,” she said.

May said eight in 10 healthcare workers experienced at least one incident of violence during the pandemic.

“I blame the administration, and the for-profit model because it’s all about making as much money as you can in the system,” she said. “If you don’t take care of the patients, that only escalates into a negative situation, which is workplace violence.”

The Hospital and Healthcare Association of Pennsylvania, which represents hospital administrations, stopped short of addressing alleged failures to report violence in a statement.

“The reality is there simply are not enough health care professionals in the pipeline to fill open positions…hospitals advocated for recent reforms that made it a felony to assault a health care worker,” the statement said in part.

Harper filed a lawsuit but it ended with a worker’s compensation claim.

“I just still can’t believe it happened,” she said.

Authorities charged her alleged assailant, which health care workers said is not the norm. However, the charges were eventually dismissed.

It happened at Pennsylvania Hospital which released a statement that reads in part:

“The safety and well-being of our employees, patients, and visitors is our top priority. We continuously monitor and adapt to trends and changes in healthcare environments through a robust combination of technology advances, training initiatives, and ongoing evaluation and evolution of our safety and security protocols and programs. Alongside our peers from other organizations, we have also advocated for greater protections for healthcare workers at the state and local level to ensure that violence against workers in our field is strenuously prosecuted.”

Harper said has since left her position at the hospital and now works as a traveling nurse.

“I just never thought that something would still have a hold on me this way,” she said.

PSNAP said there are two bills backed by the current state legislature that would limit the number of patients a nurse can be assigned depending on the level of care required.

If passed, they would also provide for more protections if a nurse does not feel safe treating a patient.

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