Sexual assault, aggression, threats against health workers need 'urgent attention'

Nearly 40 per cent of hospital staff report have been assaulted at work by patients or relatives of patients in the preceding year, a survey has found.

Twelve per cent were subjected to stalking, 10 per cent to sexual assault, and 79 per cent to a verbal threat, according to a report on the survey in today's New Zealand Medical Journal.

District health boards say violence is becoming more common at hospitals. Waitemata DHB has set up a rapid-response unit, including security workers, to help when staff believe there's a threat to the safety of patients, visitors or staff.

The survey, done by Nicola Swain and Otago University colleagues, was completed by 227 hospital staff at an unnamed district health board. Most were nurses, and the rest doctors, allied health practitioners or clinical support workers.


"The rates are considerably higher than those reported in a UK general hospital where 27 per cent were physically assaulted over the preceding year, compared to 38 per cent in the past year in the present study," the researchers say.

The rate of violence was also much higher than the reported lifetime incidence of interpersonal violence and warranted "urgent attention".

In the journal's editorial, Christchurch surgeon Dr Steven Kelly said patients could lash out because of drug, psychiatric or personality disorders, or "may come from a social environment where violence is normal and where violent behaviour is a way for them to get what they want".

"Aggressive patients and their families must realise the right to access free healthcare in New Zealand does not include a right to abuse hospital staff and that it won't be tolerated."

Data obtained by the Herald on assaults by patients and visitors showed there were 2500 reported attacks on staff at upper North Island DHBs in three years. Staff were bitten and head-butted, one patient tried to strangle an employee and another threw boiling tea over a worker.

"Waitemata DHB has zero tolerance for violence against our staff," said acting director of human resources Lesley Wildes. "Where it's not possible for staff to de-escalate and defuse the situation, they are trained to remove themselves ... and to immediately call for assistance."

Nurses Organisation industrial adviser Lesley Harry said violence against health workers was under-reported, partly because investigations could focus on the employee's response rather than how to mitigate the risk of violence. A national reporting system would help deal with violence in hospitals.

See the full report here:

Rough times while doing the rounds

Working in the mental health sector has meant for some tough times over the years for one Wellington nurse.

The 37-year-old, who did not want his name published, has been a registered nurse for the past 16 years. During that time he has been assaulted - the worst injury being a dislocated collarbone, which took him out of work for two weeks.

"I've been punched by a patient and I've had a colleague who's been knocked out. I had to jump in that time to stop my colleague from being beaten. And that's how the dislocated collarbone happened."

He has also had derogatory comments made towards him and had people threaten to kill his family.

"I've experienced aggression from patients but, to be honest, it has been quite rare to get that from family members. It is relatively common - verbal abuse. But because of the area I'm working in, mental health, you have to understand the context."

The nurse, who said his job was still fulfilling, said he had received a lot of support from his employers. Staff were trained in de-escalation techniques - to help them deal with a sticky situation when it came up.

-Vaimoana Tapaleao