Taking a Stand Against Workplace Violence
Ray Smith
/ Categories: NEWS, 2023

Taking a Stand Against Workplace Violence

Every day, hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers across the country head to work with the goal of helping others when they’re most vulnerable due to illness or injury. But due to a growing disturbing trend taking place nationwide, far too many of them have something else, a question, on their mind: will I be safe at work?

The American Hospital Association (AHA) reports that 44% of nurses report an increase in incidence of physical violence in the workplace since the pandemic and 68% report an increase in verbal abuse. In fact, an analysis by Press Ganey found that during a 3-month stretch in 2022, 57 nurses were attacked each day in the U.S.—that's two nurses every hour. Incidence of violence are now so common that health care workers suffer more workplace injuries because of violence than any other profession. Southwestern Vermont Medical Center is not immune to these types of incidents from patients and visitors either. Since 2021, 61% of medical and nursing staff have reported physically aggressive behavior, and 49% reported experiencing verbal abuse.    

What’s driving aggressive behavior varies from situation to situation and setting to setting. For example, patient frustration and confusion regarding their condition or care frequently escalates to screaming and name calling. In other cases, a family member becomes upset over long wait times or a sense that their loved one’s care is being neglected. Plus, there’s been a dramatic uptick in patients coming to emergency departments in mental distress since the onset of COVID-19. Compounding those issues is the reality that many hospitals are dealing with unprecedented staff shortages. Not only are the wait-times for care in emergency departments long—often hours, but the time it takes to coordinate the transfer of patients for care at other facilities can literally take days. In the meantime, patients awaiting transfer are occupying beds meant for emergency care. It’s the perfect storm for frustration and rising anger.

“While it’s understandable that patients and their families are not happy with a care circumstance,” says Pam Duchene, VP of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer at SVHC, “what is not acceptable is how some are taking their frustration out on the very people who have committed their lives and careers to helping them.”

Beyond the very real risk of physical harm to healthcare workers is the unseen psychological toll the often-daily abuse takes. As Duchene notes, it’s not just a matter of hurt feelings. “It’s extremely hard to provide attentive care when you’re feeling threatened or intimidated. The distraction caused by violent outbursts and threats are, frankly, traumatizing for healthcare workers and anyone else who happens to be in the space where it’s occurring.”

SVHC President and CEO Tom Dee notes that while the organization has always had protocols in place to detect and deter violence against staff, they recently introduced new measures to address escalating issues quickly and decisively.

“All the individuals who comprise our health care staff are the most valuable asset not only to SVHC as an organization, but to all the people who live in the communities we serve. Any act of aggression toward these caring and dedicated individuals will not be tolerated. In an effort to ensure their safety as well as the exceptional level of care every patient deserves, we have implemented a new Zero Tolerance policy that clearly outlines what actions and language are not allowed and what actions will be taken for those who cross the line.” 

Posted widely throughout the hospital campus, the new policy states:

 Southwestern Vermont Health Care does not tolerate abusive or violent behavior, including:

  • Threatening language
  • Foul language
  • Sexual comments
  • Physical violence
  • Inappropriate touching

These behaviors compromise the safety of patients, visitors, and staff and will result in removal from this facility and/or prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

“Southwestern Vermont Health Care is committed to a care community that respects and recognizes the value of human diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, age, socio-economic status, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability and religion,” said Trey Dobson, MD, Chief Medical Officer and a board-certified emergency department physician. “Being physically assaulted, intimidated or verbally harassed will no longer be tolerated as ‘part of the job’ at our community hospital and practices.”

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