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Senate committee to examine spike in violence against health care workers during COVID
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff work in the COVID critical care unit of the Gainesville hospital Friday, March 12, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Screams are heard from a Northeast Georgia Health System patient room, as the patient pins a nurse against a door and pushes her head into it with his hands.

Elsewhere, a patient grabs a member of the staff by the wrist and twists while kicking her in the side of her ribs.

These are some of the examples provided by NGHS officials including Kevin Matson, the health system’s vice president of facilities, support services and oncology, regarding the violence against health care workers that has increased in the past year.

“I think we could say with confidence that these incidents force many health care providers to reflect on: Can they tolerate this in their career? And it gives them second thoughts about their career choice. We know in research that’s been done that staff have left the medical field due to this violence,” Matson said.

A state Senate study committee will meet for the first time in the coming months to look at the issue of violence against health care workers. Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the committee was created during the last legislative session.

Assaults by year

Physical:

2018: 75

2019: 103

2020: 127

2021 (as of June 11): 103


Sexual:

2018: 8

2019: 4

2020: 8

2021 (as of June 11): 7


Verbal:

2018: 33

2019: 62

2020: 81

2021 (as of June 11): 55

Source: NGHS

“I think that the violence against health care workers has grown exponentially over this past 15 months or so,” Miller said.

The study committee will look at the latest statistics and determine best practices and potential legislation “in an effort to combat this alarming and growing trend against health care staff,” Miller said.

Matson said the health system’s security services team documents each time they are called into a situation at a hospital.

There were 5,023 reports in 2020 involving the NGHS security services team intervening, up from 4,870 reports in 2019. So far in 2021, there have been 2,313 reports involving the security team.

The subcategory spiking the most for the security services team intervening was when those staff members had to physically assist another member of the NGHS staff to protect them.

In 2019, there were 349 reports where the security staff physically assisted another member of the staff. That number more than doubled in 2020 to 711 reports. 

In the first half of 2021, there have already been 291 reports of the security staff physically assisting health care workers, almost matching the full year of 2019.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20,790 private sector workers in 2018 suffered some sort of trauma related to workplace violence. The agency said 73% of those workers are in health care or social assistance industries.

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Registered Nurses Cheyenne White and Kim Metzdorf check on a COVID patient Friday, March 12, 2021, in the COVID critical care unit of the Gainesville hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers

Deb Bailey, NGHS director of governmental affairs, said hospital officials took these numbers to Miller to discuss the growing problem of violence against staff.

“The safety of our staff is our No. 1 priority as well as the safety of our patients, and we are taking a no tolerance position on violence against our staff,” Matson said.

Matson noted that while physical interventions by the security staff are up, the statistic on “verbal interventions” has declined.

“Our interpretation of that data tells us that people are less resilient due to the impact of COVID: staying indoors, not having contact with others, the financial stress in this economy, other stress that exists,” Matson said. “They’ve lost some of that resilience, so as they get upset about something, they’re not able to process that as well as perhaps they did before COVID. They’re escalating much faster, whereas in the past, a verbal discussion from a security officer would have been all that was needed to de-escalate a situation.”

Emergency room and critical care settings are the more prominent places where these assaults happen.

“Emotions for family can run high in critical care, and patients can be under the effects of various medications in critical care that can contribute to these events as well,” Matson said.

In an email to The Times, Matson said there is a national trend of incidents against staff being  “tremendously underreported.” 

“In comparison to our security services reports, our Employee Assistance Program, which provides help for staff members who report having been assaulted, the number of physical assaults reported in 2019 and 2020 was 103 and 127, respectively,” Matson said. “That’s less than half of the incidents our Security Services team witnessed in 2019 and less than 20% in 2020.”

Speculating on what might lead to undercounting, Matson said hospital staff may incorrectly believe that it’s part of the job, a notion that hospitals and health care employers are trying to change as a mindset.

The Employee Assistance Program has 24/7 on-call staff available, who can respond immediately and the days and weeks after an assault, Matson said.

“When you talk to staff who have been assaulted or had some type of attack, at first they may be OK,” Matson said. “But it’s the days following where they reflect on the event and the traumatic stress begins to impact them.” 

Miller said the results from the study committee would be a multi-pronged approach that would likely lead to a “heightened awareness and sensitivity to the health care environment” and increased penalties “if we deem that appropriate.”

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