Physician Protection

Violence against physicians: Facing an elevated risk

Some physicians have been punched, kicked, beaten—and worse—by the patients they serve.

In 2016, Ruth Anne MarDock, MD, died after being attacked at work, allegedly by a patient who was upset about being transferred to another hospital. In 2018, a physician at a Long Island hospital was kicked unconscious by a patient who was angry about not receiving the treatment he demanded. In 2014, video captured a patient attacking nurses at a Minnesota hospital.

When patients attack

This sort of violence is not unfamiliar to Chris Giesa, DO, president of the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians. “I had a gentleman pull a knife on me so fast, I never saw it coming,” she says.

It was her white coat that saved Dr. Giesa. “When I jumped back, it was my sleeve that got caught in the blade, not my arm. So I was very fortunate,” she says.

But not everyone is so lucky.

Emergency physician Robert Suter, DO, says a colleague was killed. “He was targeted by a patient, followed home and killed in his own driveway after a night shift. So it’s a problem,” he says.

According to a 2013 report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care workers are four times more likely to experience violence than those in private industry with 80 percent of serious cases caused by interactions with patients.

Nearly 80 percent of emergency physicians said they had been targets of violence at work in the past 12 months, according to a nationwide 2011 study cited by the New England Journal of Medicine. “Specifically, 75 percent reported verbal threats, 21 percent physical assaults, 5 percent confrontations outside the workplace, and 2 percent stalking,” the journal article stated.

Protecting the physician

Prevention is the key to protecting health care workers.

“It’s taken a number of years, but we were finally able to get metal detectors in all of our emergency rooms in our health system,” Dr. Giesa says. “And that has been a major asset.”

Dr. Suter says that more is being done to protect emergency rooms in particular, including installing barriers to entry, metal detectors and locked doors.

For further reading: 

Violence against physicians is a reality. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself. 

Preventing workplace violence: Advice for occupational medicine physicians

#MeToo in medicine: Docs who are sexually harassed struggle to report incidents, survey finds

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