Violence in the workplace: The hidden dangers of a medical career


On Oct. 4, staff, patients, and medical students at my institution received word that a fatal shooting had occurred inside the campus hospital. For staff, this was a painful event compounding the already stressful pandemic times, while for students, it was a harsh introduction to the emerging dangers of practicing medicine.

Sure, medicine is widely known to be a grueling profession that requires sacrifice, but few realize the dangers to their own safety that providers routinely face. Unfortunately, acts of violence targeting health care workers occur at surprisingly high rates.

Reports following the shooting indicated that the gunman had a personal conflict with a coworker, and thankfully, larger numbers of people had not been targeted. While this may seem like a one-off incident, any shooting inside a hospital is a serious matter. Hospitals should be places of healing. Yes, they are inevitably places of suffering as well, but this pain should never be human-inflicted.

Health care workers are widely admired in the community, and increasingly so due to their sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though there is more attention to our health care spaces, the epidemic of occupational violence against our country’s health care workers has gone largely unrecognized, and this danger has only worsened since the onset of the pandemic.

Acts of violence against health care workers not only include fatal shootings or stabbings but may also include physical or verbal aggressions by frustrated patients and visitors. It is likely that students entering the health care field will encounter such danger during their careers.

Health care workers have four times the likelihood of being assaulted on the job, compared with those working in private industry. The World Health Organization reports that 38% of health workers can expect to experience physical violence at some point in their careers, while verbal threatening was reportedly even more common. It is plausible that the true rate of violence surpasses these rates, as reporting them is entirely voluntary.

In fact, the American Journal of Managed Care reported in 2019 that 75% of workplace assaults occur in health care, yet only 30% of nurses and 26% of emergency department physicians report such experiences.

Anecdotally, many of my own physician mentors have shared stories of troubling or threatening situations they have faced throughout their careers. These types of situations can be difficult to avoid, as providers are trained and naturally inclined to empathize with their patients and help as much as possible, making it difficult to turn away potentially violent individuals.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public became more fatigued, incidents of violence rose. Facing staffing shortages, visitor restrictions, and high-acuity patients, health care workers found it increasingly difficult to manage large caseloads. High levels of stress were affecting not only patients, who were facing some of the toughest times of their lives, but also staff, who experienced rising demands.


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