Protecting physicians from violence requires all hands on deck

Sara Berg, MS , Senior News Writer

Violence in medicine is not new. But the reported rise in intimidation, threats and attacks toward physicians and other health professionals has seen a drastic rise over the last decade, becoming even more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing how to identify and address violence against physicians and other health professionals is key to moving forward.

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Between 2011 and 2018, violent attacks against medical professionals grew by 67% with health professionals five times more likely to experience workplace violence than workers in all industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Health professionals were also about 50% more likely than other community members to have been harassed, bullied or hurt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Violence has no place in the medical field and so we as individuals and as leaders in organized medicine have a responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent it from occurring inside and outside of the workplace,” Nancy R. Church, MD, said during an education session at the 2022 AMA Interim Meeting. Dr. Church is an ob-gyn and vice chair of the AMA Organized Medical Staff Section Governing Council.

“This is important for the health and well-being of everyone working in medicine today, but particularly for those who have been historically marginalized,” said Dr. Church at the session, which was jointly offered by several AMA groups and sections. “The AMA is deeply concerned about the threatening behavior and how it has contributed to an increasingly hostile working environment across all fields in America, particularly in the front-line professionals.”

“Simply telling our colleagues to cope with this harassment and menacing behavior is totally unacceptable,” she said.

Here are some ways physicians, hospitals and health systems can address workplace violence in medicine.

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Research is “really powerful for us to understand these issues … because it shows that there’s credibility,” said Michael Tutty, PhD, group vice president of professional satisfaction and practice sustainability at the AMA. “This isn’t about physicians complaining. This is about creating the evidence base to validate concerns.

“It becomes a powerful tool whether we’re working with leadership within health systems or we’re working with our legislators and elected officials to show that there is science behind these issues,” Tutty added, emphasizing “there’s powerful data behind these issues and burdens that physicians face.”

Additionally, “the more frequency you experience racial or offensive remarks or sexual remarks, the higher levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and burnout you feel, and this is unacceptable,” he said.

Reducing physician burnout is a critical component of the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.

Far too many American physicians experience burnout. That's why the AMA develops resources that prioritize well-being and highlight workflow changes so physicians can focus on what matters—patient care.

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“As physicians and members of organized medical staff, we're responsible for safety, not just our patients, but our colleagues and the hospital staff,” said AMA member David Welsh, MD, a general surgeon in Batesville, Indiana, and delegate in the AMA House of Delegates for the Indiana State Medical Association. He is also chair-elect of the AMA Council on Science and Public Health.

“It's up to us to make sure that all our friends and colleagues and coworkers are working in as safe an environment as possible,” Dr. Welsh said. “We need to make sure that we stand up for our colleagues. We can make a difference.”

But “what works at one place may not work in another,” Dr. Welsh said. “When we are working on solutions, we need to work with stakeholders because it’s not just about us. It’s about our nursing staff. It’s about X-ray techs. It’s our office staff.”

“In my office we have a panic button and many hospitals have limited access to their rooms. But one size does not fit all,” he said. “You can look at other places and see what may work in your location, but we have to have conversations with our medical staff and ask the question, ‘Are we safe?’”