Texas state data shows pandemic-era increase in attacks on healthcare workers

Mycah Hatfield Image
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Once seen as heroes, medical workers are now increasingly attacked
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They were saluted at the start of the pandemic, but state data is showing attacks on healthcare workers have increased. What's more, Houston-area hospitals aren't exactly upfront about how many times employees have been targeted, but one nurse claims it's a "daily occurrence."

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Throughout his 27 years working as a nurse in the Houston area, Earvin Baker said he had seen it all, including violence against himself and his colleagues.

"I've been in positions in an (emergency room) that I did more football tackles than handshakes," Baker said.

About once a week, he said he is verbally assaulted, and about once a month, he receives a physical threat.

"I have had patients who have come in high on drugs and have knocked the teeth out of doctors," Baker told Eyewitness News.

It is not always coming from the patients, according to Baker. He said in many cases it's the patient's family members.

In June 2022, four people were killed, including a doctor, at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The suspect, who was believed to be targeting an orthopedic surgeon, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In October 2022, two employees, including a nurse, at Methodist Hospital in Dallas were shot in the labor and delivery area.

Both are frightening attacks on healthcare workers that had devastating consequences. Attacks on healthcare workers happen regularly, though on a smaller scale.

"That's probably a daily occurrence," Hadji Sarr, the assistant director of public safety at Houston Methodist, said.

Sarr said the assaults happen in all areas of the hospital, but the intensive care unit, behavioral health unit, and the emergency department are the hot spots.

"In the past, healthcare workers may have felt like it is part of their job to be cursed at or to be assaulted, but it is not," Sarr said.

Baker believes the rise is a result of patients being treated like customers rather than patients.

"I think that whole idea that as a customer you're always right and 'I can do what I want to with you because I'm the customer and I can't do anything about it.' I think that has led to a lot more of this 'I'm going to cuss you out. I am going to talk to you bad. I'm going to treat you bad, because you can't do anything about it,'" Baker explained.

ABC13 attempted to find out how many assaults have happened at hospitals in the Houston area. Most of them are privately owned and do not have to provide the data. They opted not to.

Ben Taub is county-owned. ABC13 submitted a public records request asking for the numbers, but they sent the request to the Attorney General's Office asking to withhold the statistics.

Eyewitness News has learned the Harris Health System does keep track of the numbers, but they argued in their letter to the state official that it is an internal document and they do not have to release it.

"If they tell you there are 1,000 cases, I can assure you that's well underreported because most of us never officially report it," Baker, who spoke about reporting generally, said.

Encouraging reporting of these cases is one of the ways hospitals are trying to combat the problem that has seen a 44% increase since the pandemic, according to the American Hospital Association.

State legislators made it a felony in 2013 to assault emergency department workers.

"A lot of people think, 'Let's just make it against the law, and we'll put people in jail.' And that is just not the answer," Baker said.

Baker said he believes that better training for healthcare professionals will help the most.

At least five hospitals in the Houston area combined to receive more than $600,000 in grant money from the state to fund innovative approaches to reduce the violence.

One of the recipients, Houston Methodist, now has its employees watch training modules on how to handle these encounters.

They have also gotten virtual reality technology that puts their nurses in situations so they can practice how to react.

"We do have a zero-tolerance policy here, so it's not just a matter of training," Sarr said. "It's also a matter of us standing by our staff as well so that we can provide that zero-tolerance safe environment."

Ultimately, Sarr said their priority is to provide quality care to their patients, but in order to do that, employees have to feel safe.

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