There is no place for violence in civil society. Yet stabbings, shootings, threats and other violent attacks have become frighteningly common, including in America’s hospitals and other health care settings.
As leaders of national associations representing hospitals and emergency physicians, we know the intimidation and violence endured by medical professionals every day. Making it a federal offense could help prevent it.
Nurses, doctors, and other staff on the front lines of care in U.S. hospitals, emergency departments, and health care systems experience high rates of violence. A new survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) found that more than eight in 10 emergency physicians believe the rate of violence in emergency departments has increased, with 45% saying it has greatly increased over the past five years. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A survey of registered nurses working in hospitals showed that, during the pandemic, 44% reported experiencing physical violence and 68% reported experiencing verbal abuse. This creates a severely challenging environment in what are supposed to be places of healing.
Despite the near-daily occurrence of abuse directed toward health care workers, there is no federal law that protects them.
In late 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged the shocking uptick in violence against airline workers and directed the U.S. Department of Justice to prioritize prosecuting individuals who carry out attacks. Members of Congress are now weighing a bill to help protect America’s health care workforce.
The bipartisan Safety From Violence for Healthcare Employees Act (H.R. 7961), sponsored by Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), would make assaulting or intimidating health care workers on the job a federal offense.
This bill would also boost the capacity of hospitals and health systems to prevent and curtail violence against staff. By establishing a new grant program, the bill would encourage hospitals to upgrade their security systems, better train staff to respond to violent incidents, and more effectively coordinate with law enforcement to curb threats.
Preventing violence in hospitals is the right thing to do for everyone’s safety and has important implications for care delivery. Workplace hostility makes it difficult for health care workers to focus on their mission to provide care to patients.
It is especially concerning that the ACEP survey found that nearly nine in 10 emergency physicians believe violence in emergency departments negatively affects patient care. When it comes to medical emergencies — from injuries caused by gunshots and car accidents to ruptured appendixes and overdoses — time is of the essence and every second counts. Medical personnel should be 100% focused on providing lifesaving care without worrying about their own safety.
Physical and verbal attacks also demoralize health care workers. Even the threat of violence contributes to burnout and exacerbates high levels of staff turnover. Hospitals and health systems are facing an unprecedented shortage of doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals. Unless violence is mitigated by implementing protections, it will become increasingly harder to retain and recruit staff.
No one should have to work in an environment in which they feel threatened and disrespected. We applaud the lawmakers who support the SAVE Act and urge Congress to enact it. Emergency physicians, nurses, and all hospital-based professionals work around the clock to provide quality care to everyone who needs it, and they deserve to be protected from violence as they do it.
Mary Beth Kingston is a registered nurse, the chief nursing officer at Advocate Aurora Health, and a member of the American Hospital Association’s board of trustees. Christopher S. Kang is an emergency physician based in Tacoma, Wash., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.