(COLORADO) — Nurses and other healthcare professionals have tough jobs, meeting the needs of patients, caring for the very sick or injured, and maintaining a compassionate bedside manner throughout. Nurses are under attack though, at times literally with the exponential rise in verbal and physical abuse.

UCHealth Memorial Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Tamera Rosenbaum said, “There are varying reasons and I think often people who don’t work in a hospital setting think that this is an occurrence that happens in the emergency department with alcoholics or drug-addicted people or behavioral health type individuals that frequent our emergency department.”

Rosenbaum talked about how the increasing number of patients who are struggling with an acute care crisis and need inpatient care.

UCHealth workplace safety sign
UCHealth workplace safety sign Courtesy: UCHealth

“I probably have two inpatient nursing units that I can fill with behavioral dementia and substance abuse individuals. My typical nursing unit is around 25 beds, so about 50 beds, give or take in our facility just at Memorial Central, we could fill with these types of patients. I have patients that have been with us for over a year, I have patients that have been with us for over 150 to 200 days,” Rosenbaum said.

She highlighted that almost 300 “post-acute care beds” have been closed in the community because of the pandemic and have yet to reopen. Without the proper resources, Rosenbaum said these patients can’t be safely discharged and end up staying long-term. She also talked about how many patients and family members have simply acted badly.

“We saw this escalate during the pandemic where people kind of just lost their common sense and thought that it was okay to treat people in ways that I frankly have never seen in my career. Typically when someone comes into a healthcare environment and we have nurses that are helping them, they are thankful. Often that’s not the case anymore,” Rosenbaum said.

Josh Ewing, Vice President of Legislative Affairs with the Colorado Hospital Association spoke about the trends in workplace violence in healthcare that have been taking place from around 2015 to 2016. He said the trends started going up exponentially during the pandemic and think the reasons for that vary.

“One of the biggest reasons is that healthcare got very politicized during the pandemic; whether it was just lack of information or understanding about what was happening, different beliefs around masking or vaccination… Any time something such as the delivery of healthcare services makes its way into social media debates, you start to lose control over what is a reasonable approach,” Ewing said.

The increase in incidents of violence has created problems with the ongoing nursing shortage as well.

Ewing said, “I think we have a bit of a negative feedback loop that’s occurring now within our healthcare system, and that’s certainly not unique to Colorado, but we’re feeling that very acutely here in the state of Colorado. You have this increase in violence and this almost belief, among at least certain members of the public, that they can treat healthcare workers poorly, either verbally assault them or sometimes physically, which is leading to challenges retaining our healthcare workforce.”

He recalled the days early in the pandemic when the public celebrated healthcare heroes, comparing the abrupt and vicious 180, that seems to have overtaken society or at least parts of it. Ewing also touched on the pandemic fatigue people began to feel and how that affected healthcare interactions.

“I think one of the statistics that always stands out to me is our incidences of violence in healthcare. Healthcare workers are five times more likely to be injured than other workers from violence… just violence. Five times more likely… These are literally people who dedicate their lives to taking care of us when we’re hurt, when we’re sick, when we’re at our most vulnerable and these people are being assaulted. It’s just wrong,” Ewing said.

Colorado’s hospitals have developed a variety of ways to combat this alarming trend from technology to personnel. UCHealth has implemented a scanning program that can alert nurses and other healthcare workers to the potential for violence. Nurses are taught where to stand in a room should they need to make a hasty exit.

“UCHealth is not special. And, this is happening nationwide. And it’s a real problem. It’s actually, I would call it a crisis,” Rosenbaum said.

Legislation is being looked at on the federal level in the form of the SAVE Act that was introduced last year.

“I think inaction is not an option. We will continue our hospitals and health systems here in Colorado, and will not stop pushing for greater awareness of this, as well as greater support for our healthcare workers because we literally have… a healthcare workforce that is afraid to wear their scrubs and stop at the grocery store on the way home for fear of being threatened or verbally assaulted,” Ewing said.