The pandemic has shown us how much we rely on hospital staff for their care. It also reminded everyone of how much abuse they get from providing it.
The Sun Journal this month reported an increase in assaults at two Lewiston hospitals. Earlier this year, nurses at Maine Medical Center in Portland protested against, among other things, workplace violence.
Violence in hospitals has been a problem for some time. COVID just made it impossible to ignore. A legislative working group is examining how perpetrators can be held criminally liable.
But just as the escalation in violence is not limited to the stress and isolation of the pandemic, it can only be resolved through more arrests and prosecutions.
Sun Journal reports show why there isn’t just one answer.
At St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, there were about five times more assaults on staff members in 2021 than in 2019. At Central Maine Medical Center, security interventions have increased by about a third over the of this period.
COVID and the accompanying pandemic was certainly part of that. Hospitals were dealing with more seriously ill patients and more worried family members than before, all with the increased stress of COVID protocols, as well as staff burnout that worsened as the pandemic s extended.
But, above all, the pandemic has only added stress to an already stressed system – a system that long before COVID-19 dropped far too many problems at the feet of hospital workers, without the resources to deal with them. .
Hospital emergency rooms are the last resort. People who can’t get help elsewhere in our expensive and fragmented health care system end up there when things get really bad.
Thus, hospitals receive very sick people with untreated illnesses and injuries. They get people whose mental health or substance use has deteriorated because they can’t afford treatment, or because they’re just not available, and now they’re in crisis.
They receive people in pain and discomfort, scared and confused, then are usually forced to wait for prolonged care – the result of staff shortages which also means hospital workers are in an unstable environment without enough help.
The results are unacceptable.
“They have been kicked, punched, spit and concussed at the hands of patients they are there to care for,” a union official representing nurses at Maine Medical Center in Portland said earlier this year. .
And while violence escalated during the pandemic, it was increasingly part of the job long before that. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare workers suffered 73% of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses due to violence in 2018. In 2014, a Boston television station reported on the upsurge in violence in hospitals.
No, violence against hospital staff is not rooted in the pandemic, and it will not go away just because COVID becomes less severe.
Nurses certainly need all the resources to deal with troublesome patients, and in some cases prosecuting offenders can help reduce violence.
But neither addresses the heart of the problem: a health care system that doesn’t treat people until they’re in crisis.
Until people can get the care they need when they need it, they will continue to descend into crisis, with the hospital the only place to go – and hospital workers will continue to suffer.