October 31, 2022
By Meka Douthit Ingram and Ernest Grant
Originally published in the Charlotte Observer, Durham Herald-Sun, and the News & Observer.
On Oct. 18, our fellow North Carolina nurse, June Onkundi, died following a patient’s attack. June dedicated her life to helping others and making a positive impact on the lives of her patients. Her loss has shaken the nursing community.
If you do not work in health care, ask yourself: “Would I work in a profession where one-third of its employees are assaulted?” Of course not. It seems impossible that such a situation could exist. But it does. And we must do everything possible to end the violence against nurses.
According to a workplace survey of over 11,800 nurses, almost one-third of respondents have experienced incidents of physical violence. It’s a major reason 11% of respondents to a North Carolina Nurses Association survey earlier this year said they are burnt out to the point of leaving the profession.
Workplace violence is an unresolved issue in nursing that has gotten particularly worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is more troubling, as many as 80% of nurses don’t even bother to report violence anymore. That’s how prevalent the problem has become. Here are just two statements from nurses who have come forward:
“I have been spun around, grabbed by the throat, and thrown against the wall by a patient.”
“I have had to dodge a bloody needle thrown by a patient who knowingly has a communicable disease.”
In a culture where no one is responsible for solutions and there is a lack of consistent laws for prevention and accountability, perpetrators are undeterred.
This must stop. The American Nurses Association and NCNA are working on multiple fronts to make that happen.
In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 560 into law, making it a felony to assault health care workers on hospital property in North Carolina. This law is rarely enforced, as violence is too often waved off as “part of the job.” NCNA worked hard to help get this law passed, and we now encourage local law enforcement agencies to prosecute offenders swiftly and appropriately.
Meanwhile, ANA supports federal legislation (H.R. 1195/S4182) that requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop and implement specific standards for citations and penalties against employers who fail to act. Employers must understand that helping end violence against nurses comes with great benefit, while failing to act comes with a great cost. They can enhance workplace culture immediately with two simple steps: 1. Encouraging reporting. 2. Making it clear that violence is unacceptable and will have consequences.
The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that health care depends considerably on the ingenuity and skill of nurses. Nursing is a commitment and a mission, but we are losing nurses due to burnout, frustration with our flawed health care system, and because they’ve been assaulted on the job.
When it comes to workplace violence, we can pass laws, impose penalties, and create incentives, but there’s something else we need — to show respect for nurses as individuals and as healthcare professionals.
There are behaviors we do not tolerate, and we show how we feel about them long before they require law enforcement. When we see someone assaulted in public, most of us will speak up. Let’s do the same for nurses and healthcare professionals. Every person can help. Change begins with each of us.
If you work in health care, call for reporting systems with clear definitions of what “crosses the line.” Ask your colleagues to join you, and remind them that there is no other workplace where one-third of employees suffer assault.
Time is up: End the violence against nurses. June Onkundi deserved better, and so do the colleagues she left behind.
Meka Douthit Ingram is president of the North Carolina Nurses Association and a director of nursing at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro. Ernest Grant is president of the American Nurses Association and lives in Chapel Hill.
Meka Douthit Ingram, DNP, MSN, RN, NE-BC, is the 55th president of the North Carolina Nurses Association. She is currently a director of nursing at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a life-long resident of North Carolina and the president of the American Nurses Association, the premiere organization representing the interests of the nation’s 4.3 million registered nurses.
Chris Cowperthwaite, APR
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