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Zero tolerance for violence against health care professionals

Photo: Zero tolerance for violence against health care professionals
While working as a nurse on health’s frontline I was sworn at, hit, threatened and even once forcibly kissed. None of these events were particularly extreme, but for health workers every shift the threat of violence is so regular it becomes familiar and something you know you are likely to experience as part of your day’s work.

In the last week, video has emerged proving how very real the risk is to those caring for our community. The disturbing footage shows patients flinging chairs and lunging at staff at Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was released by workers in protest against the rising tide of abuse they are being subjected to. In 2017, the hospital recorded nearly 7500 incidents, including nine ‘code black’ incidents involving aggressive patients with a weapon, which is a huge increase of 85 percent over the past four years.
Violence against health care workers is not restricted to this one hospital or state, it is a global and national problem. The World Health Organisation estimates between 8 percent and 38 percent of health workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers.

For the nursing profession, this number is much higher. Research published by the Australian Institute of Criminology identified nurses as the occupational group most at risk of workplace violence in Australia.

Nurses are usually the first clinical point of contact for patients in most health care settings and tasked with triage. Triage is essentially determining the severity of a patient’s problem and therefore the urgency with which they need to be seen. Waiting and feeling frustrated over not being cared for in a manner they deem acceptable can be a trigger for violence by patients or their family and friends.

In 2005, the final report of the Victorian Taskforce on Violence in Nursing referenced research that found as many as 95 percent of nurse respondents had experienced repeated episodes of aggression in the past year, with 80 percent reporting multiple episodes of physical aggression.

Governments, health managers and our justice system must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to violence against health care workers. Health care workers are saving the lives of Australians and should never have their own lives and wellbeing threatened simply because they are doing this important job.

If this issue is not addressed, we will find our already deficient workforce numbers plummeting further – then who will care for us in our time of need? It is already projected that by 2030 Australia will have a shortage of 120,000 nurses. There is numerous evidence that facing violence and hostility on a regular basis impacts on recruitment and retention of nurses.

The Victorian Government had started addressing this issue prior to the images from the Royal Melbourne Hospital coming to light. It has made safety a priority and is investing significant funds in hospital security. Other jurisdictions must follow suit and we need to protect health care workers in all settings.

We must care for those who care for us. Just one incident of violence against our doctors, nurses and other members of the health care team is one too many.

By Australian College of Nursing’s CEO Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward FACN RN, MMgt, Dip App Sci (Nursing), Acute Care Cert., FACN, Wharton Fellow, MAICD.

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