Wellington region hospital employees are being assaulted by patients at a rate of more than one a day, with most of the attacks occurring in mental health services.
Figures released by Capital & Coast District Health Board show 462 paramedics, staff or contractors were attacked, assaulted or injured by patients last year.
Just 27 of those incidents happened outside mental health services, which care for about 9000 people each year.
These patients can have severe intellectual disabilities, acute mental illness and dementia.
The executive director for mental health, addictions and intellectual disability, Nigel Fairley, said they could also be referred by the courts to the service with a forensic history.
"We have 175 inpatients at any one time, some residing in our facilities over long periods of time," Mr Fairley said.
Staff working in mental health were "well aware of the risks", but a number of measures were taken to reduce dangers, he said.
"This includes staff regularly attending a number of courses, including ones aimed at managing an incident to prevent any escalation and calming techniques."
New Zealand Nurses Organisation industrial adviser Lesley Harry said there was a high turnover of mental health nurses due to the difficult nature of the job.
Being subjected to verbal and physical assaults from patients would "certainly reduce the enjoyment of providing care for mental health patients, without a doubt, and it would have an impact on stress levels on our members".
Fairley said the "vast majority" of incidents did not result in physical harm.
"We take every incident, whether it be violent or verbal abuse, very seriously and all reported incidents are reviewed on a monthly basis."
Support, including counselling and security advice, was available to staff who are victims of an assault, Mr Fairley said.
In the past three years, 1101 attacks involving mental health services staff were reported, compared with 86 in all other areas - including Wellington Hospital's emergency department, which deals with an influx of aggressive drunks every weekend.
Otago University research, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2011, found drunk patients had a "significant" negative impact on the department's workload and staff safety.
A total of 47 staff, including doctors, nurses, ambulance officers and radiographers, gave their views on dealing with intoxicated patients.
Of those, 21 said they had been abused verbally and 13 - all nurses and ambulance officers - said they had been physically assaulted.
Hutt Valley District Health Board reported an increase in assaults on staff at its main hospital campus, with 114 incidents reported last year compared with 84 the previous year.
The board did not provide information on which department had the single highest number of incidents.
Hutt Valley and Capital & Coast occupational health and safety manager Roseanne McElroy said the Hutt increase was due to a change in the way assaults were reported and counted.
"In the emergency departments of both district health boards we have seen a decrease in assaults over the last year as a result of reviewing the way we work."
Wairarapa had a spike in the number of assaults in 2011 due to a long-stay dementia patient, who contributed to 16 incidents.
PATIENTS LASH OUT
Capital & Coast District Health Board
2012 – 462
2011 – 547
2010 – 178
Hutt Valley District Health Board
2011 – 84
2010 – 80
Wairarapa District Health Board
2012 – 10
2011 – 16
2010 – 4 -
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