Staff at several of Queensland’s key public hospitals are regularly being kicked, hit, spat on and even seriously injured for doing their job.
A special ABC investigation has shown the incidence of assaults has skyrocketed in the past year, with staff suffering fractures, trauma and stress.
The ABC has obtained figures from Princess Alexandra (PA) Hospital, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), Gold Coast University Hospital (GCUH) and Cairns Hospital over the past three financial years.
It found the PA recorded the highest number of assaults with 831 over that period, while Cairns registered 641, the RBWH 636 and 587 at GCUH.
The RBWH recorded 349 physical assaults, while the PA recorded 331 over the three years to June.
The severity of attacks also appears to be escalating, with the number of worker’s compensation claims lodged last financial year surging to 107 at the four hospitals, far above the two previous years.
In the same period, reports recorded with Queensland Health’s incident management system (IMS) jumped to 1,121 in the year ending June 2015, far above the 824 recorded in 2013-14 and 866 in 2012-13.
Injuries to staff included fractures, cuts, trauma, anxiety and stress.
Nurses have borne the brunt of those injuries but security officers, doctors and catering staff have also been attacked.
WorkCover claims have included trauma to muscles, a fractured skull and facial bones, chemical burns, anxiety and stress.
Some of the claims received state:
- Kicked in face by a patient and arm twisted over bed rail - Patient lunged with a knife at me. - I was signing a whiteboard outside the nurses room and patient came up and king hit me from the side. I fell and hit my head on the floor. The patient continued to punch me while I was unconscious on the floor. - A violent patient chasing, cornering and threatening myself and other staff of CCU and actually punching a nurse in the eye with a (redacted) positive blood stain.
Incidents lodged with Queensland Health’s system paint a more graphic picture of the abuse endured by staff:
- Patient swearing … throwing a cup … used words such as ‘you nurses are f*** ing c**** of s***s of nurses’. - Patient verbally and physically self-harming lunged at me punching left shoulder, bit two fingers on left hand, two lacerations bleeding broken skin, painful arm. - The patient came out from the pan room behind me and poured urine down my back saying: ‘It’s kero, I want to save you.’
In one incident, a highly intoxicated patient urinated on a trolley then while being transferred to a new trolley fell forward, dragging the registered nurse with him so she fell face first into the urine-saturated trolley.
There have been reports of patients using broken glass, knives and scissors to stab at nurses.
“Whilst in shower, patient lunged forward and punched registered nurse in the lower abdomen,” one report stated.
“While attempting to disentangle patients gown from pacing leads, patient punched myself in chin,” another said.
“Stayed with patient to prevent them pulling out pacing wires. Patient lunged forward and bit my left hand.”
The reports, obtained under right to information laws, do not link individual incidents to hospital, nor do they suggest that the four hospitals highlighted are any worse than others around the state.
Health Minister, nurses union to blame: Opposition
Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle said the increase in assaults was “outrageous” and a result of “inaction, ineptitude or neglect” by Queensland Nurses’ Union bosses and Health Minister Cameron Dick.
“QNU bosses are clearly too busy looking after themselves and playing factional games with the Labor Party to be taking concerns from nurses around Queensland,” he said.
Mr McArdle said the Palaszczuk Labor Government had not been forthcoming with the assault numbers.
“Minister Dick needs to come clean with Queenslanders and explain what is going on in our hospitals, how serious the situation is and what is being done to keep our health staff and patients safe,” he said.
‘Nobody should have to put up with violence at work’
Queensland Nurses Union president Beth Mohle said a taskforce was examining what contributed to the violence and considering better ways of handling it.
“Nobody should have to put up with violence at work or threats of violence at work, and that’s why we are campaigning very heavily on this issue,” she said.
“This isn’t only as a result of ice in emergency departments it’s also as a result particularly of alcohol ingestion and also issues such as dementia and assaults by mental health patients as well.”
PA emergency physician Dr Carl Dux said violence was an everyday part of the job.
“It’s so ingrained in our culture to deal with it now that it’s an expectation you’ll come to work and see people at least attempt to be violent with you,” he said.
Kelly Jenkins has been an emergency nurse for 17 years and currently works at the PA.
“Patients will try and punch out, they will try and kick out,” she said.
“We have had instances in the emergency department of people being physically abused.”
Drunk patients more of a problem than ice: Doctor
The pair said that despite the focus on the effects of the drug ice, alcohol remained the biggest problem.
“Ice is devastating to the people who use it, but alcohol would be on a scale of 10 to one what we deal with,” Dr Dux said.
“What upsets us the most is it takes resources away from other sick people who don’t have a self-induced problem.
“They haven’t been out drinking all night and they’re critically unwell, yet we’re trying to deal with someone who’s been violent in emergency and that’s probably the most frustrating thing of the whole thing.”
Security guards now stationed at most major hospitals have been helping staff to cope with violent patients.
Ms Jenkins said that on a good day security may only be called a dozen times but on a bad day it was every hour.
Verbal assault Physical assault Other incidents Total incidents Female staff Male staff Patient assault Other Cairns 68 287 286 641 401 240 469 172 RBWH 98 349 189 636 433 203 504 132 PAH 197 331 303 831 625 206 562 269 GCUH 59 158 370 587 371 216 159 428
Despite the increasing incidence of assaults, it is rare for charges to be laid.
Ms Jenkins said it was part of the culture and that nurses were naturally nurturing people.
“I don’t think you would be a nurse if you didn’t want to look after people and I think you can look past it sometimes,” she said.
“I know myself personally I think we’ll they’re in a bad place at the time. Maybe they chose the wrong decisions when they did but they might be on that road now that they don’t know how to get back.
“So you sometimes for forgive them for where they are and you try and treat them as best you can.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC News’ on 10 December 2015.