Elise Wilson felt pretty confident in her ability to spot red flags, having worked as an emergency room nurse at Harrington Hospital in Southbridge, Massachusetts, for nearly two decades. And she had indeed turned her back on the patient, who would later be diagnosed with mental illness, for just a second before he began stabbing her in the neck and arm.
“He was standing literally right in front of me. I had nowhere to go,” Wilson said. “And the first thing he did was punch me in the head. And when I turned back, he was standing almost knee to knee with me, holding a knife in his hand over his head.
Wilson spoke about the 2017 attack at a virtual panel discussion Tuesday night about the need to prevent rising violence against health care workers. Other panelists at the event, hosted by Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics, included a member of Congress who introduced legislation on the issue and three other health professionals.
Participants made it clear that the problem was serious and growing. According to the 2018 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare workers accounted for 73 percent of all non-fatal injuries and illnesses related to workplace violence. And more than eight in 10 health care workers reported in a National Nurses United survey that they experienced at least one type of workplace violence during the pandemic, when the need for care has grown amid staffing shortages across the country
“We know that health care workers face threats, intimidation and in some horrific circumstances, actual violence, and we know that this is happening more and more,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania.
Dean joined Republican Larry Buckshon, a physician from Indiana, to introduce a bill this summer to provide legal protections to hospital workers assaulted on the job by making such acts of violence a federal crime.
“If we can deter this behavior from patients, their families or others, and we can ensure that healthcare workers have the knowledge and best practice, the ability to protect themselves, we will be really happy to have been a very small part of solving this problem “, she said.
The measure, called the Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act, is modeled after legislation that protects airline employees from violence by introducing tougher penalties for perpetrators. It also aims to improve education and prevention strategies through a $25 million grant to hospitals across the country. It currently has more than 50 co-signatories and is endorsed by several healthcare advocacy organizations, including the American Hospital Association and the American Hospital Federation.
“It’s all about preparedness and mitigating risks,” said Connie Packard, a longtime law enforcement official and president-elect of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety.
Packard, who is currently the chief of public safety at Boston Medical Center, outlined strategies for legislation aimed at helping keep healthcare workers safe. She talked about the need for hospitals to evaluate their workplace violence prevention policies, review technology such as personal panic alarms and metal screening, and reach out to other agencies working on hospital security.
Wilson said the attack left her with permanent nerve damage and ongoing mobility issues that have prevented her from returning to work as a nurse, but expressed hope that her story can inspire action from both lawmakers and hospital administration. “This has to stop,” she said.
Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center, said law school scholars will continue to pay attention to how victims of violence in health care facilities receive justice and legal protection, and that she hopes Tuesday’s panel will help more further conversation.
“We were truly honored to host such a remarkable panel. And I think it was especially meaningful that Elise shared her first-hand account of workplace violence in health care, because it’s a very hard story that can’t be easy to share. Those reflections, those first-person accounts, are so important to understanding what the stakes are,” she said.
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