RIO RANCHO, NM — The University of New Mexico Health System is asking patients and visitors Not attacking hospital staff. This problem is not exclusive to New Mexicans. Hospitals across the country are seeing an alarming rise in workplace violence.
Pamela Demarest, UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center’s chief operating and nurse officer, said she began her nursing career in 1974. It wasn’t long before she had her first physical encounter with an aggressive patient at the age of just 18.
“I was slapped in the face and my arm was grabbed and twisted and these are patients with dementia,” she said. “So at the time I thought that was pretty normal.”
Today the violence continues. Demarest said abuse of KOB 4 had increased during the pandemic, as people refused to wear masks and tempers ran high.
“We’ve had people who’ve had their arms broken, you know, wrist strains, who couldn’t work because of some of the injuries they had,” she said. “Even as a trauma nurse many years ago I don’t recall the kind of escalation we see here in healthcare, we even have people who are verbally or physically abused at the entrance.”
Demarest said higher patient numbers and longer wait times for care could contribute to a further increase in workplace abuse.
“There are times when people yell and use profanity,” she explained. “It counts as workplace violence.”
She and her colleagues ask the patients to be patient.
“We’ve been dealing with a pandemic with a reduced workforce and increased patient numbers for about three years,” she said. “I think if people practiced grace more and really thought about how their words and actions affect other people, we’d all have problems here.”
Demarest added that rising violence in hospitals was driving out health workers in an already understaffed area.
“We have great difficulty recruiting nurses,” she said. “I know a lot of nurses who have retired.”
In 2022, the UNM SRMC recorded 359 incidents of behavior ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence. Of those 359 incidents, 34 were considered violence against a healthcare worker.
“Family members are also becoming increasingly aggressive toward people who are caring for their loved ones,” Demarest said.
To keep the violence under control, UNM Health System security officers are undergoing critical incident training and de-escalation training with the Albuquerque Police Department. They must also take a course called Managing of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB).
“All nurses and emergency department staff also complete MOAB training,” Demarest said.
If a patient or visitor becomes aggressive, a simple code or panic button will trigger those with training into action.
In addition, the UNM health system added signage at all of its facilities explaining what constitutes “aggressive behavior” and its zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence.
“Just knowing for frontline workers that we have zero tolerance has really made a difference for most of the people who work here,” Demarest said.