CEO, hospital staff get candid about workplace violence

Emergency department workers at Burlington-based University of Vermont Health Network are opening up about the workplace violence they have experienced. 

In a video The New York Times ran as an op-ed on Oct. 24, staff members describe the violence they have observed.

"I got into emergency medicine because I wanted to care for people," Laura Mulvey, MD, says in the video. "But I didn't go into emergency medicine to watch my colleagues get stabbed by a patient with kitchen shears." 

Matt Looft, RN, described the frequency at which he has seen violence occur.

"Violence has become a daily occurence in our hospitals. I was knocked unconscious by a patient," he says.

The video is part of UVM Health Network's larger awareness campaign, which also features more online resources with additional stories and data. The organization went live with all its materials and its own version of the video Nov. 1, as part of its planned campaign rollout.

Overall, the campaign aims to increase community awareness about violence against healthcare workers and give staff members an outlet to discuss the violence they have experienced while doing their jobs.

The latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2021, private industry employers reported 2.6 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses. If illnesses are removed, the healthcare and social services industry recorded 453,200 nonfatal injuries — the highest of any industry. 

"We know that there's been violence against healthcare employees at all levels, particularly in emergency medicine," Sunil Eappen, MD, president and CEO of UVM Health Network, told Becker's at its CEO+CFO Roundtable on Nov. 14. "This has been happening all around the country. It probably got a little higher and a little more accentuated after COVID. So when we had our employees say that they wanted to make sure that their voices were heard, we reached out to them and said, 'We have an opportunity to do this.'" 

Dr. Eappen said his organization also was talking to The New York Times about the work at UVM Health Network, and that resulted in the op-ed. As of Nov. 14, the video had been viewed at least 2 million times via social media accounts for the newspaper and health system.

"It's had quite a bit of impact, and we've also heard anecdotally that different emergency departments and emergency medicine departments across the country are using that video as a way to start that conversation internally," Dr. Eappen said.

"It is not new to anyone if you're in that space, but it's an opportunity to sort of shed light, acknowledge that it's happening and then have that conversation about, 'How are you feeling? What should we be doing? What can we do?'"

Still, he acknowledged that while UVM Health Network employees have given incredibly positive feedback about the campaign efforts, there was initially apprehension from leaders in the organization. He said their concerns centered around questions such as: Are people going to think that this is only happening in Vermont? Is this going to hurt our recruitment? What are patients going to think? 

"I think we were able to very safely address those issues, largely because our own workforce came forward and said, 'No, this is good. We need our communities to be aware of what's going on. We need to be able to work together to try to solve some of these issues,'" Dr. Eappen said.

Awareness has been the first step, and now, he said employees themselves have moved the agenda forward in a way leadership could feel comfortable. This agenda includes goals to inspire conversations that could lead to meaningful action related to combating workplace violence, both at UVM Health Network and nationwide.

In addition to the recent campaign, UVM Health Network, which has about 15,000 employees, has continued to train staff on de-escalation, limited what people can bring into the emergency room and added a metal detector at UVM Medical Center's emergency department. 

"It's really important that we acknowledge that our healthcare workers are going through this, and they are living this," Dr. Eappen said. "And for us as leaders not to recognize and acknowledge that this is part of the challenge that our workforce has is really sort of us being negligent."

He encouraged leaders to become aware of violence that occurs in the healthcare workforce and to partner with their community to ensure patients are also aware of the tensions that are happening and efforts being made to combat violence.


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