BENNINGTON — Southwestern Vermont Health Care has implemented a new zero tolerance policy for its hospital campus, medical office building and offsite practices to address the workplace violence trend occurring at health care institutions across the U.S.
The American Hospital Association reports that 44 percent of nurses report an increase in incidence of physical violence in the workplace since the pandemic, and 68 percent report an increase in verbal abuse. In fact, an analysis by Press Ganey found that during a three-month stretch in 2022, 57 nurses were attacked each day in the U.S. — that is two nurses every hour. Incidence of violence are now so common that health care workers suffer more workplace injuries because of violence than any other profession.
Southwestern Vermont Medical Center is not immune to these types of incidents from patients and visitors either, SVMC said in a statement. Since 2021, 61 percent of medical and nursing staff have reported physically aggressive behavior, and 49 percent reported experiencing verbal abuse.
SVHC President and CEO Tom Dee notes that, while the organization always has had protocols in place to detect and deter violence against staff, they recently introduced new measures to address escalating issues quickly and decisively.
“All the individuals who comprise our health care staff are the most valuable asset not only to SVHC as an organization, but to all the people who live in the communities we serve. In an effort to ensure their safety, as well as the exceptional level of care every patient deserves, we have implemented a new zero tolerance policy that clearly outlines what actions and language are not allowed and what actions will be taken for those who cross the line. Any act of aggression toward these caring and dedicated individuals will not be tolerated,” he said in the statement.
Posted widely throughout the hospital campus and its practices, the new policy states that SVHC does not tolerate abusive or violent behavior, including:
•and inappropriate touching.
SVHC says these behaviors compromise the safety of patients, visitors and staff, and will result in removal from their facilities, and/or prosecution.
“Southwestern Vermont Health Care is committed to a care community that respects and recognizes the value of human diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, age, socio-economic status, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability and religion,” said Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer and a board-certified emergency department physician, in the statement. “Being physically assaulted, intimidated or verbally harassed will no longer be tolerated as ‘part of the job’ at our community hospital and practices.”
What is driving aggressive behavior can vary from situation to situation and setting to setting. For example, patient frustration and confusion regarding their condition or care sometimes escalates to screaming and name-calling. In other cases, a family member might become upset over long wait times or a sense that their loved one’s care is being neglected.
Additionally, there has been a dramatic uptick in patients coming to emergency departments in mental distress since the onset of COVID-19. Compounding these issues is the reality that many hospitals nationwide are dealing with unprecedented staff shortages. Not only are the wait times for care in emergency departments long — often hours — but the time it takes to coordinate the transfer of patients for care at other facilities can literally take days. In the meantime, patients awaiting transfer are occupying beds meant for emergency care.
“While it’s understandable that patients and their families are not happy with a care circumstance,” said Pam Duchene, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at SVHC, “what is not acceptable is how some are taking their frustration out on the very people who have committed their lives and careers to helping them.”
Beyond the very real risk of physical harm to health care workers is the unseen psychological toll the often-daily abuse takes. As Duchene notes, it’s not just a matter of hurt feelings.
“It’s extremely hard to provide attentive care when you’re feeling threatened or intimidated. The distraction caused by violent outbursts and threats are, frankly, traumatizing for health care workers and anyone else who happens to be in the space where it’s occurring.”