Healthcare violence prompts legislative action

Assaults against health care workers are on the rise, and a state lawmaker is taking action.

Logan Wroge

A patient turned violent against a nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, in early September, choking her and leaving her uncertain about the profession she chose.

“My life has turned completely upside down because of this,” said Kim, who asked to go by her first name due to the nature of the incident.

Kim’s story represents an increase in violence toward nurses and other health care professionals, a trend that’s prompting lawmakers to address the issue and further protect those who serve others.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, plans to introduce a bill, the Nurse Protection Act, in the spring legislative session that would increase fines and prison sentences for anyone who assaults nurses, doctors or other emergency personnel.

“Why would you ever want to physically harm someone who is literally there to help you?” said nursing senior Zack Stegeman.

Nurses working for local and state government were at the highest risk for injury and illness compared to other industry subsectors in Minnesota between 2010 and 2012, according to data published by the state’s Department of Labor and Industry.

Kim, who has worked at the University’s hospital for 12 years, said she was assaulted four times by the patient.

The patient left his room in confusion and wandered toward a freight elevator, Kim said. After attempting to bring him back, she said, the patient swung his cane at her.

Security officers brought the patient back to his room, but he shortly made his way to the public elevators, Kim said. When she confronted him again, he became verbally and physically abusive, she said, and assaulted her three more times before security responded.

Atkins’ bill is meant to address situations like these, but it’s not a solo effort.

The Minnesota Nurses Association, law enforcement officials and others are involved in a working group to make the bill as comprehensive as possible, Atkins said.

“Rather than impose my judgment, I’d like to hear from people that are on the front lines doing it every day,” Atkins said.

He said he expects the bill to get a hearing in the House’s public safety committee next session.

Since about 4,000 bills are introduced in a typical session, Atkins said, getting a hearing is an indication of momentum.

Kathy Knight, vice president of behavioral and professional services for the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, said nurses at the hospital are trained to assess patients’ aggression levels and employ de-escalation strategies and intervention techniques.

For example, potential risk factors are noted on patients’ charts, Knight said. If a patient has a history of violence, narcotics addiction or other issues, restrictions are placed what types of equipment can be in the patient’s room and where the room can be located, Knight said.

Nursing students gain knowledge about safety from classes and simulations and during clinical practice, said Connie White Delaney, dean of the University’s School of Nursing.

Knight said she supports Atkins’ bill, but she wants to see stipulations related to mental health in the proposed law.

“When it comes to applying a law, you can’t broad brushstroke it,” Knight said. “You have to take into account the mental capacity of the person at the time they committed the violent act.”

Body size can play an important role in an altercation between a patient and caregiver.

Stegeman, the nursing senior, described himself as 6 feet 4 inches and about 200 pounds and said he isn’t too concerned about potential workplace violence.

But in Kim’s case, size wasn’t in her favor.

Standing at just under 5 feet tall, Kim said she was in no physical position to take on her aggressor, whom she described as over 6 feet tall and about 300 pounds. Nurses are also not legally permitted to hit patients, she said.

Following the attack, Kim said Fairview denied her short-term disability claim, adding that she had to use personal vacation time for recovery.

“Had I known that this was possible or that this could happen before I started this career, no, I wouldn’t have done this,” she said.