Congress: Health care staff deserve stronger protections against workplace violence

When harm to airline employees by passengers was rising at alarming rates last year, the U.S. attorney general directed all U.S. attorneys to prioritize prosecutions. As the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized, vigorous enforcement fosters a safer traveling environment, deters violent behavior and ensures that offenders are appropriately punished.

The feelings of frustration, helplessness, and fear in the workplace experienced by airline workers also have been felt by many health care workers during the pandemic. However, airline workers benefit from federal protections against workplace violence, while nurses, physicians and other health care workers do not. 

Since the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, data show that violence against hospital employees has markedly increased: 44 percent of nurses report experiencing physical violence and 68 percent report experiencing verbal abuse during the pandemic. Some high-profile cases such as the recent tragic shooting in an Oklahoma hospital made headlines, but most of the violence, threats, and harassment faced by health care workers never make the news. Unfortunately, this disturbing trend shows no signs of slowing.

Care providers accept highly emotional situations as part of the job. In fact, many expect it as part of the job. Even in the absence of a global pandemic, dire health circumstances can bring out the worst in people. Mental illness and a systemic lack of access to mental health services play a huge role. Physical pain, emotional frustration and feelings of helplessness can cloud even the most reasonable person’s judgment.
As health care providers, we often sense the anxiety of patients and family members in the hospital setting. Through it all, health care workers soldier on — sometimes with emotional scars and physical injuries — because it comes with the territory.

Over the years, hospitals and health systems have worked to mitigate violence against staff. Hospitals are taking direct and determined action: from raising risk awareness, to better and more transparent reporting, to wider information-sharing, to investments in security, surveillance, training and alert notifications. In addition, the American Hospital Association’s (AHA) Hospitals Against Violence (HAV) initiative is working toward addressing violence within hospitals and health systems by sharing examples and best practices with the field.

However, individual hospitals and health systems can only do so much to prevent workplace violence. Substantial changes need to be established immediately. 

That’s why the AHA, its American Organization for Nursing Leadership and numerous other provider groups are calling on Congress to enact the Safety From Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act (H.R. 7961). This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), would make it a federal crime for anyone to assault or intimidate a hospital employee during the course of performing their duties, interfere with the performance of their duties, or attempt to do so. Similar to the enhanced protections for aircraft and airport workers established by Congress, the SAVE Act would go a long way toward preventing violence in the health care setting so that we can deliver quality care to patients without fear. The SAVE Act also would establish a grant program for hospitals to train personnel to respond to threats, upgrade their security systems and better coordinate with state and local law enforcement.

Our health care system is one that is focused on the safety of patients. But we can’t ignore the safety of our health care workers. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand. Our mission as health care providers is to help, heal, and support our patients and their families as best we can. Until hospital violence is addressed, our mission is compromised.

Through the SAVE Act, Congress can protect patients by safeguarding the workers who are there to save them.

Rick Pollack is president and CEO of the American Hospital Association. Robyn Begley is Chief Nursing Officer of the American Hospital Association and CEO of the AHA’s American Organization for Nursing Leadership.