Violence against healthcare workers

Dec 19, 2019 | Healthcare, Workplace Violence

Violence against healthcare workers is, unfortunately, not uncommon. It is a worldwide issue and has been described as a “rising epidemic”.

  • According to the American Nurses Association, one in four nurses is assaulted on the job
  • The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) reports that 80% of emergency room doctors in the United States have been involved in workplace violence
  • 75% of nearly 25,000 reported workplace assaults in the US annually take place in health care and social service settings according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • In the 2018 annual NHS staff survey, 14.5% of staff said they have experienced physical violence from patients, their relatives or the public
  • In a survey of 400 doctors in the UK, 78% said they had experienced assaults, threats or both according to
  • Research by Health Service Journal and Unison found physical assaults on NHS hospital staff had risen 9.7% between 2016 and 2017, with an average of just over 200 reported violent attached on NHS workers in the UK every day
  • More than 3,000 violent patients in England were barred from seeing their GP in 2018.

Despite these shocking figures, the reality is likely to be even more extreme with numerous instances of physical and verbal abuse going unreported. Many healthcare workers have come to view abusive language and threats as “all part of the job”.

With horror stories of staff being held hostage with surgical scissors, being punched, kicked, headbutted and even shot, as well as routine abusive language, it’s clear that something needs to be done to address this issue.

Why is violence in healthcare so common?

The majority of instances of violence against healthcare workers are committed by patients and visitors. The circumstances under which patients and their families meet healthcare workers is likely to be very emotionally volatile. They are likely to be experiencing fear, rage, confusion, anxiety. This can result in irrational behaviour and people lashing out.

Healthcare workers also regularly come into contact with patients who are impaired (e.g. under the influence of illegal drugs) or who are suffering from dementia, mental illnesses or who are coming round from anaesthetic, all of which can lead to confusion, agitation and potentially violence.All of these potential triggers are amplified by staff shortages, increased workloads and longer waiting times for patients.

Most at risk are nurses and others involved directly in patient care, emergency room (A&E) staff and paramedics. They all provide safety and care for patients, but can end up in a conflicted situation – do they protect themselves or the patient?

This threat of violence can, unsurprisingly, significantly affect the physical and mental wellbeing of staff. It can affect their motivation and can lead to staff opting to leave the profession – all of which compromises the quality of care which patients may receive. This creates something of a vicious circle.

Finding a solution should therefore be a priority.

How can violence against healthcare workers be prevented?

In recent years, the medical community and wider public have taken an interest in reducing the number of assaults in healthcare settings. However, finding a resolution to this problem is far from simple.

In an ideal world, there would be more staff so each healthcare worker has more time to spend with each patient, giving them the care and reassurance they need to help keep feelings of fear and frustration at bay. However, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Enhanced security measures have been taken by some major hospitals in the US – but this is also a very costly solution which cannot be rolled out on a national scale.

A focus on communication will help. Most nurses have never been educated about workplace violence. If staff can be trained to recognise subtle signs of agitation and potential violence, develop methods to de-escalate the situation and ways to protect themselves, this worrying trend may begin to reverse.

In 2018, the UK announced an NHS violence reduction strategy to clarify organisational responsibilities, improve training and development of staff in dealing with violence and abuse and raise the profile of the issue. Offenders are also being prosecuted more quickly. However, whilst the government has taken initiatives to help protect employees in healthcare, advocacy groups have stressed that more meaningful changes are needed. The sad truth is that the issue is likely to be ongoing for some time yet.

How could Little Green Button help?

Whilst we would never dream of making bold claims that a panic alarm system will solve the issue of violence against healthcare workers, we do believe it could go some way to help reduce instances of violence in some healthcare settings.

For example, there are rising levels of violence and abuse in GP surgeries. Receptionists are often first in the line of fire. By installing the Little Green Button system throughout the surgery, a receptionist feeling threatened can trigger a silent alert requesting assistance. Another member of staff can enter the reception area and, in many instances, this is enough to diffuse a volatile situation.

Equally, a GP or nurse offering a private consultation behind closed doors is likely to be within easy reach of their PC. A simple click if they’re feeling under threat can bring a colleague to their door.

The same system could be used in other healthcare settings where staff are close to a PC or allowed to carry their phone. By having the ability to subtly call for support, a violent outcome can often be avoided.

The World Health Organization (WHO) holds employers accountable for both ensuring the safety of their employees and acting to treat them after an act of violence has occurred. The Little Green Button is a cost-effective way to take a step in the right direction. Training remains absolutely key – recognising the signs that things may be about to turn nasty is vital. But having a panic alarm system in place gives a way for workers to take the next step if they feel a situation is getting uncomfortable.

If you’d like to speak to us about some of our healthcare setting success stories, please do get in touch with a member of our team.