Law Aims To Protect Health Care Workers From Abuse

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It’s not uncommon to hear nurses and other hospital workers tell horror stories about being verbally or even physically assaulted by a patient or one of their relatives. The violence often goes unreported and no legal action is taken. But WOSU reports two bills in the state legislature aim to give more protection to health care workers.

It’s a busy Monday afternoon at Ohio State University Medical Center.

Libby Robb is a nurse in the emergency department.

Robb said nurses on almost every shift experience some kind of abuse from a patient…many times it’s just verbal – a snide remark about how long they had to wait, sometimes they are spoken threats. But then there are times when the abuse escalates.

Recently, Robb was physically assaulted by a patient. She did not want to talk about the specifics of the assault. She said she took a few days off work to take care of doctors’ appointments and take time to get herself back together emotionally. But the assault left her rattled.

“I was walking from here to another part of the hospital where you have to go through a supply area. And this poor guy came around the corner totally minding his own business, doing his job. And I looked up and I [screamed] and he frightened me. And he was like, oh, I’m so sorry.’ I’m like oh it’s not you it’s me, trust me. Soon after I really took from that you can’t let one experience define your career or how you feel and just try to remember why you went into health care and let that motivate you,” she said.

According to the most recent figures from the Emergency Nurses Association, as many as 13 percent of emergency department nurses are victims of physical violence every week.

Robb said her colleagues called to check on her and even sent her flowers after her assault. But she says not everyone has that kind of support.

“I have a friend, another friend who was assaulted at work, she did not feel supported and ended up leaving her position,” Robb said.

Ohio State University Medical Center would not say anything other than there was legal action taken in Robb’s assault.

Nick Chmielewski is director at-large for the Ohio Emergency Nurses Association. He says violence toward health care works attributes to turnover rates, like Robb’s friend. And he said it negatively affects patient care and morale among co-workers.

“We’re asking for is the quality of protection already shared by other public service professionals, nothing more, and really nothing less. And there’s a lot of empirical evidence that’s out there that supports these episodes are occurring on a routine basis in our emergency departments,” he said.

The two bills, Senate Bill 111 and House Bill 154, complementary legislation, would make it a fourth degree felony to assault a health care worker or a hospital security officer. Ohio law already offers similar protection to firefighters, police officers and school employees like teachers and bus drivers.

For years, it was thought that assaults and verbal abuse was just part of working at a hospital. Chmielewski said it was considered taboo if someone reported the violence.

“It feels difficult to report something when an incident like that has occurred; it’s almost as if you’re going against the purpose that you are there to serve that patient,” Chmielewski said.

But Chmielewski said the mindset is changing and workers are gaining more support and more data is being collected on the issue.

Robb said she thinks some of the violence is anger derived from patient anxiety – worrying what’s going to happen to themselves or their relative. But she said the abuse takes away valuable resources from other patients.

“In some situations this is why I think it would be great if this bill passed. I think there’s been some instances where we see a patient that will come in and it will be a repeat occurrence. [The same patient that does this over and over?] Correct. And I think if this bill gets passed, it holds them accountable,” Robb said.

“My name is Rick Kelley. I am the administrative nurse manager for the emergency department here at Grant Hospital. I’ve been a nurse for 15 years. Twelve years of that has been in the emergency department. I’ve been verbally abused, whether that is just kind of walking away off the hand kind of comments regarding their wait or anything like that to actual verbal threats of aggression to either witnessing or being a part of some sort of physical attack.”

A study published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship last March found the atmosphere of violence – physical, emotional or verbal – contributed to an increase in patient falls, medication being given late and medication errors.

“It can put in your mindset a caution and it can distract you from really thinking of patient care and really focusing more on your own safety,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he supports both bills. He thinks, if passed, they will help curb some of the abuse, and help workers put the focus on patient care. And when asked if she felt a felony was too harsh a punishment, Libby Robb said no.

“Oh, I think it fits the crime. You know, we’re here to try to help people. So I think it’s very unfortunate when you see us verbally or physically assaulted or abused regardless of what it’s rooted in or why it happens,” she said.

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