TThere is no place for violence in civil society here. Yet stabbings, shootings, threats, and other violent attacks have become frighteningly common, including in America’s hospitals and other healthcare settings.
As leaders of national associations representing hospitals and emergency physicians, we know the intimidation and violence that medical professionals are exposed to every day. Making it a federal crime can help prevent it.
Nurses, doctors, and other personnel at the forefront of care in U.S. hospitals, emergency rooms, and health care systems are exposed to high levels of violence. A new survey by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) found that more than eight in 10 emergency room doctors believe the rate of violence in emergency rooms has increased, and 45% say it has increased drastically over the past five years. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A survey of registered nurses working in hospitals reported that 44% had experienced physical violence and 68% verbal abuse during the pandemic. This creates a very challenging environment where there should be places of healing.
Although there is almost daily abuse against healthcare workers, there is no federal law protecting them.
In late 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged the shocking increase in violence against airline employees and instructed the US Department of Justice to prioritize prosecuting perpetrators. Members of Congress are now debating a bill that would help protect America’s healthcare workforce.
The Healthcare Workers Safety from Violence Act (HR 7961), sponsored by Representatives Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), would make it a federal crime to assault or intimidate healthcare workers in the workplace. .
This bill will also increase the capacity of hospitals and health systems to prevent and reduce violence against staff. The bill will create a new grant program to encourage hospitals to upgrade their security systems, better train staff to respond to violence, and more effectively coordinate with law enforcement to thwart threats.
Preventing violence in hospitals is the right thing to do for everyone’s safety and has important consequences for the delivery of care. Workplace hostility makes it difficult for healthcare professionals to focus on their mission of providing care to patients.
It is particularly worrying that the ACEP survey found that nearly nine out of 10 emergency room physicians believed that violence in emergency rooms negatively impacted patient care. When it comes to medical emergencies – from injuries caused by firearms and car accidents to ruptures of appendicitis and overdoses – time is of the essence, and every second counts. Healthcare providers should focus on providing 100% 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 healthcare systems are facing an unprecedented shortage of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Unless violence is mitigated by the implementation of protections, it will become increasingly difficult to retain and recruit staff.
No one should have to work in an environment where they feel threatened or disrespected. We applaud the lawmakers who support the SAVING Act and urge Congress to enact it. Emergency doctors, nurses, and all professionals in the hospital work around the clock to provide quality care to all who need it, and in doing so deserve protection from violence.
Mary Beth Kingston is a registered nurse, chief nurse of Advocate Aurora Health, and a trustee of the American Hospital Association. Christopher S. Kang is an emergency medicine physician based in Tacoma, Wash., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.