Hospital staff under attack

UNDER ATTACK: "There are mentally ill patients, others are under the influence, and some people are just arseholes" - Paul Quigley, Wellington Hospital emergency medicine specialist.
UNDER ATTACK: "There are mentally ill patients, others are under the influence, and some people are just arseholes" - Paul Quigley, Wellington Hospital emergency medicine specialist.

Hospitals are hotbeds of violence, with more than one-in-three staff being attacked by patients, a new study shows.

It paints an alarming picture of nurses and doctors reporting physical assaults, threats and even stalkings in the past year.

As many as four in 10 are sexually harassed, and nearly a third have been injured after being attacked by a patient.

In the study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, co-author Nicola Swain, of Otago University, says patient violence in New Zealand appears to be unusually high by international comparisons. "It was a real surprise. It is just so common."

The study surveyed 227 health staff - including doctors, nurses and support staff - working in 22 wards in one unnamed New Zealand hospital.

Nurses were more likely to be attacked than doctors, and mental health units were particularly dangerous, but the study found verbal and physical attacks were common everywhere.

Wellington Hospital emergency medicine specialist Paul Quigley said emergency department staff had been admitted to the hospital themselves after being punched or kicked by patients.

He had been punched in the face, and said verbal abuse was part of any Friday or Saturday night in the department.

"There are mentally ill patients, others are under the influence, and some people are just arseholes."

He said patient behaviour contributed to the high turnover of staff in the department, and risked putting off prospective health professionals.

However, working in New Zealand was far better than Australia, where emergency departments often needed police on hand, and some drugged-up patients had to be Tasered.

"We don't need that here. We've actually got a pretty good population in Wellington."

The study found nurses working in the unnamed hospital's mental health unit were most likely to report aggressive patient behaviour.

Mental health nurse James Satherley, who works at Wellington Hospital, said he had been assaulted many times during his 16-year career.

He once had his collarbone dislocated, forcing him off work for weeks. He had been trying to control a patient who had just knocked out another nurse with a punch to the face. "I've been punched in the face, where I was addled for a few days, bruised and twisted various limbs."

He loved his job and worked with a lot of fantastic patients. "But I don't want to be assaulted, I just want to help people."

None of the Wellington region's three district health boards could provide recent figures for assaults on staff yesterday. However, previous figures show dozens of cases are reported a year and unions have said many attacks go unreported.

Andrea McCance, Capital & Coast DHB's nursing and midwifery director, said violence against staff was taken very seriously, with regular training for restraining and dealing with "challenging incidents".

However, the violence was often linked to patients' medical condition. "Some aggressive behaviour displayed by patients relates to their health condition or treatment, such as recovering from an anaesthetic, awakening after a bypass or neurosurgery."

Swain said the level of abuse was concerning, and more work was needed to protect hospital staff.

PATIENTS BEHAVING BADLY

227 hospital staff surveyed:

79 per cent had been threatened

38 per cent had been assaulted

29 per cent had been injured

39 per cent had been sexually harassed

10 per cent had been sexually assaulted

12 per cent had been stalked

26 per cent had faced litigation

Source: New Zealand Medical Journal, figures for the past year from staff from 22 wards/units from one hospital.

The Dominion Post