MHHA Anti-Violence Poster

An anti-violence awareness poster designed by the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

TRAVERSE CITY – It has been more than a year since nurses, doctors and EMTs were hailed as heroes – since signs went up on front lawns and whole neighborhoods banged pots and pans at sunset in appreciation.

The pandemic continues, but the once-heartwarming appreciation for health care workers is increasingly being replaced by frustration, in some cases leading to violent and abusive interactions targeting hospital staff.

Today, hospitals across Michigan are growing concerned about increasing incidences of violence against healthcare workers. At Munson Medical center, violent interactions have increased in proportion to a number of systemic pressures, such as increased wait times, sicker patients, short-staffing, and the most intense surge of COVID-19 yet to arrive in northwest Michigan.

Calls to 911 have been made anywhere between 15 and 20 times per month by staff at the hospital, sometimes with multiple calls being made in the same day. They originate from security staff reporting disorderly conduct, from nurses dealing with mentally ill patients, and from staff anywhere in the hospital dealing with patients trespassing or refusing to comply with the hospital’s masking ordinance.

“We’d like to see less of that, less need for that, but it’s just the reality of our environment and our community these days,” said John Bolde, Munson Healthcare’s Director of Systems Security. “It’s stressful times.”

Bolde said visitors are increasingly entering the hospital in a combative mindset, after which they can be set off by being told they’re not allowed at a patient’s bedside because of infection prevention measures. The result has been a “significant rise” in violent incidents across all of Munson’s eight hospitals, Bolde said, with a noticeable uptick beginning about a year ago.

In response, security staff aim to de-escalate, said Bolde, but if de-escalation is impossible then his staff, or sometimes nurses, are forced to call 911. In a recent example, Bolde described a combative patient who struck a member of the health care team, resulting in a call to the Traverse City Police Department.

Even if they remove the antagonist, the violence distracts from the healing process, Bolde said.

“We want our staff to be focused on taking care of patients, not on dealing with verbal assaults or physical altercations,” said Bolde.

In a press conference Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Christine Nefcy described the current surge as the worst the hospital system had seen so far – in part because of the pandemic’s duration, but also because of the increasingly hostile climate toward health care workers.

“The violence and some of the rhetoric that we’re hearing, the distrust that some of the misinformation that’s out there on social media has created against hospitals, against our health departments, against our medical staff, has been really disheartening,” said Nefcy. “Those stories that you’re hearing, they really just make a difficult situation all the worse.”

Munson has begun it’s own anti-violence campaign in parallel to awareness campaigns occurring statewide. On Oct. 27, the Michigan Health and Hospitals association began its own push to quell violence against healthcare workers.

“Violence has been a huge issue that the MHHA has been focused on, even before the pandemic,” said Adam Carlson, MHHA’s Senior Vice President for Advocacy. “Unfortunately, like so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.”

MHHA had already begun to mobilize around worker safety in 2019. Through surveys and conversations with hospital executives, Carlson said the hostile work climate had become one of the “main factors” contributing to burnout of frontline caregivers.

One arm of the trade association’s campaign is awareness, but another is a push to change how Michigan protects healthcare workers, who, in 2020, were more likely to sustain a workplace injury or illness than any other profession, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the crosshairs is a legislative change: A proposal that Michigan’s penal code protect healthcare workers in the same manner that it protects police officers and firefighters.

Under the current code, assaulting a police officer is a felony offense, while assaulting a healthcare worker is a misdemeanor. The bill, which has sat in committee since 2019, would equalize the two, ramping up the legal penalties for individuals who become hostile in a hospital setting.

“Protections for those first responders should not end once those patients come through the sliding emergency room doors,” Carlson said. “They’re oftentimes treating the same patient seconds apart from each other, but those legal protections change once they enter the hospital.”

If it did pass, Michigan would join a number of other states with similar penalties – Wisconsin passed a similar act in 2019, while Ohio passed a similar law in 2012. Currently, it is one of only a handful to lack the stronger penalty.

Carlson also thinks the new law will help encourage prosecutors, who he says the MHHA has seen being unwilling to take on cases of healthcare worker assault.

Bolde, Munson’s security director, said he too was hoping for reform.

“We’re lobbying for that,” Bolde said. “Our health care team has rights, they shouldn’t be assaulted. We’d want them to have the same rights as anyone else when it comes to crimes committed against them.”

Data Journalist Luca Powell’s reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.

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