Workplace violence against frontline health care workers has become an increasing problem, especially with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
April 1, 2022 (ACP) — Violence against physicians, public health officials, and other health care workers is an increasingly serious problem in the United States, and the American College of Physicians is introducing a new advocacy toolkit to help members push for more protection in their states.
Health care and social service workers are five times as likely to experience violence as workers overall, and health care workers specifically account for 73 percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illness due to violence, said Kory Stuer, ACP associate for state health policy and advocacy. The World Medical Association called such violence “an international emergency” that “undermines the very foundations of health systems and ultimately impacts critically on patients' health.”
And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more dangerous for health care workers to do their jobs. “The early evidence and widespread reporting in the media have indicated that physicians and other health care workers are indeed seeing violence rising even further above the crisis levels we were seeing pre-COVID,” said Stuer. “In addition to the escalating violence against physicians and those on the frontlines of health care, ACP is also alarmed at the dramatic increase in threats and violence targeting the public health officials who have been working tirelessly to protect our communities during the pandemic.”
Workers across all health care sectors do experience workplace violence, but there are some types of care where violence disproportionately occurs, Stuer said. Emergency department and mental health personnel face violence at the highest rates, as do physicians and health care workers providing care that has been politicized, like reproductive health care and transgender health care, Stuer said.
In 2021, the ACP Board of Regents approved a Position Statement on Promoting Policy Standards for Workplace Violence Prevention and Management that recognized the harm workplace violence causes and to call for action. Specifically, the statement urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop, implement and enforce a national standard addressing workplace violence in the health care setting.
There also needs to be more research into workplace violence prevention. “While we know the problem is serious, we need high-quality data and standard definitions to better understand the full impact of workplace violence and find the most effective interventions,” they said.
The latest ACP toolkit includes sample letters that can be sent by chapters or members to state officials to advocate for enhancing laws related to workplace violence in their state, with different letters available for different states depending on what laws they already have on the books.
“ACP supports legislative efforts to prevent workplace violence, and in the absence of a federal standard for workplace violence prevention in health care, members can use this toolkit to ensure that there are strong laws in place in their state that protect physicians and other health care workers,” Stuer said.
There is no federal standard. Instead, there is a patchwork of state laws across the country. “Most states do have some kind of legal protection for physicians and other health care workers, as well as for public health officials, but it is also true that most states' laws could be strengthened,” Stuer said.
The new toolkit and advocacy push to end violence against health care workers are in line with ACP's overarching objective: bolstering state health policy.
“As partisanship has increased in Washington, D.C., health policy is increasingly being made at the state level, and ACP is expanding our capacity to support chapters in state-level advocacy,” Stuer said.
The Advocacy Toolkit: Addressing Rising Workplace Violence Against Physicians and Health Care Workers is available on the ACP website.