Chris Ciabarra

Violence has no place in our hospitals

May 24, 2023
By Chris Ciabarra

Hospitals are supposed to be places where people go to be made well, and receive the care and treatment they need. As anyone who works in the healthcare sector knows, however, hospitals are also stressful places where tempers can flare and tensions often spill over into violence.

Shockingly, healthcare employees are five times more likely to experience workplace violence than workers in other sectors, with an alarming 63% rise in violent attacks against medical professionals between 2011 and 2018. Emergency rooms are particularly prone to unrest, with over 80% of emergency physicians reporting increasing violence in their departments.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that healthcare workers are about 50% more likely than workers in other industries to consider leaving their jobs. To prevent worker shortages and ensure world-class care for patients, healthcare providers need to get serious about ending the epidemic of workplace violence — and that starts with getting serious about security.

What causes the violence?
To make hospitals safer for everyone, we need to start by considering the reasons they’re becoming so dangerous. It’s partly the populations that hospitals serve: necessarily, the people who wind up in hospitals are often vulnerable populations going through extremely stressful periods of their lives.

That might include homeless people, or people struggling with drug addiction or mental health challenges, many of whom grapple with the constant threat of violence, and carry makeshift weapons such as rebar, knives, hammers, or crowbars that they have found necessary for survival on the streets. Relevantly, researchers have found that hospitals with a high proportion of psychiatric patients confiscate a far greater amount of weapons than those without a psychiatric unit.

And of course, not all hospital violence is caused by patients struggling with homelessness, addiction, or mental health problems. In one tragic recent case, a patient in Tulsa shot and killed his doctor after suffering pain following a back operation. In other cases, anxieties surrounding COVID-19 have led to stressed-out patients subjecting healthcare workers to verbal and physical abuse.

The reality is that today’s hospitals are on the front lines of many of the social, economic, and cultural challenges confronting our society, and often that makes them places where tensions spill over into violence. Trying to resolve the underlying causes of violence is beyond the abilities of healthcare providers — so the question becomes, how can we do more to keep patients and healthcare workers safe from harm?

Reducing risk
To mitigate the threat of violence, a multifaceted approach is necessary. At a governmental level, we need continuing state and federal legislative efforts to penalize violence against healthcare workers, and ensure that hospital employees’ safety isn’t taken for granted.

At the level of individual hospitals, meanwhile, we need clear processes to manage vulnerable and high-risk populations effectively. For homeless patients, for instance, this might include private rooms where appropriate, access to basic necessities such as food, water, and hygiene facilities, and partnerships with community organizations to provide support services such as job training, affordable housing, and mental health counseling.

The goal should be to treat all patients with compassion, training staff members to create safe and supportive environments and to de-escalate conflict before it happens. Achieving this might also require hospitals to give workers the tools to flag potentially violent patients in hospital records, ensuring that proper care is taken when dealing with people who have a record of violence — and thereby giving hospital workers the ability to engage more confidently with all their patients.

In response to the uptick in assaults, some hospitals have gone a step further than re-training, setting up specialist units dedicated to the de-escalation of violence. In 2022, UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento launched The Behavioral Escalation Support Team (BEST) — a group of psychiatric nurse practitioners, mental health workers, and lift team members who provide 24/7 support in the event of disturbances. A year on from the program’s initiation, BEST has responded to more than 1,500 calls, successfully preventing 100% of patient, staff, and bystander injuries.

Toward a technological solution
Unfortunately, with American hospitals in the grip of a staff shortage crisis, not all healthcare providers have the resources to implement the necessary changes. For this reason, wider reform must go hand-in-hand with a strengthening of physical security arrangements. Additional guards, security cameras, and panic alarms are a good starting point, but the sad reality is that if hospitals are truly committed to keeping their patients and employees safe, they also need a means to screen for hidden weapons.

Regrettably, healthcare workers from Halifax to Honolulu report seeing more and more concealed weapons being brought into their hospitals. While not every weapon is carried illegally or used in an act of violence, the only way to prevent serious violence in hospital settings is to control the flow of hidden weapons into the medical workplace setting.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Conventional weapon detection systems are often intimating and invasive, requiring individuals to be herded through imposing scanners or searched with metal-detecting wands. That would be hard to implement in a fast-moving medical environment, and the resultant stress might do more harm than good by triggering confrontations between staff and patients.

A more nuanced, considered solution is therefore necessary — one that is discreet and non-invasive so as not to provoke an adverse reaction, but forensic enough to detect even the smallest concealed weapons. By implementing new scanning technologies at key entry points, it’s possible to quietly identify weapons and empower healthcare workers and security teams to defuse situations quietly and reduce risk for everyone.

A holistic approach
The bottom line is that to keep hospitals safe, we’ll need a holistic approach that encompasses compassionate care for vulnerable patients; proper training and support for healthcare workers; and tech-forward security measures that promote safety without adding friction and stress to the hospital experience.

By implementing such strategies, hospitals can reduce the risk of violence, while improving health outcomes and upholding the dignity of all their patients. There’s no excuse for violence in our hospitals — and with a holistic approach to safety, it’s possible to build a secure environment for everyone. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

About the author: Chris Ciabarra is the CTO and co-founder at Athena Security.