Study underestimates risk nurses face of on-the-job assault

(From left to right) Humber practical nursing students Karen Barrett, Nan Li, Nyarai Chiconyora learning in a lab on North Campus.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

By: Jason Sahlani

A new study by Statistics Canada that said more than one-third of nurses were physically assaulted by patients in 2005 may be underestimating the severity of the problem.

The vice-president of Ontario’s 56,000-strong nurses’ union, the Ontario Nurses Association, Vicki McKenna said her organization wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“We get reports weekly from the front-lines and our members let us know what’s happening out there,” said McKenna. “From research we’ve done we know that only one in five assaults [of nurses by patients] is actually reported. So while the numbers reported by StatsCan are alarming, they are also very conservative.”

The survey that spawned the Statistics Canada study was administered to 12,200 nurses across the country. Of those, 50 per cent reported being assaulted by a patient in 2005, with high percentages of physical assaults occurring in the palliative care sector (47 per cent) and psychiatric or mental health care sector (44 per cent).

The study also showed that although they only make up six per cent of the 218,000 nurses in Canada, 46 per cent of male nurses reported being physically assaulted compared to 33 per cent of female nurses.

According to Humber’s Dean of Health Sciences, Kathleen MacMillan, one reason for the over-representation of male nurses being assaulted in 2005 their tendency to work in psychiatric and mental health facilities, areas where assaults are more likely to take place.

Emotional abuse was another area where psychiatric or mental health care lead the way with 70 per cent of nurse’s surveyed reporting abuse, followed closely by 69 per cent of emergency room nurses.

The study also said a nurse’s experience was a key factor in the possibility of an assault occurring.

Nurses with less than five years of experience were more likely to have been assaulted - both physically and emotionally - than more experienced practitioners.

“Communication with patients is essential,” said MacMillan. “We teach our nurses about how to build relationships with patients.” She added that the second semester of Humber’s nursing program has a clinical course that develops skills of conflict resolution through de-escalation of tense situations.

Emily Stevens, a registered nurse with three years of experience at Brampton Civic Hospital, said although new to the field, she has already witnessed abuse from patients.

She said the verbal and physical abuse she and her colleagues face is extremely stressful and the abuse “a nurse may face from a patient can be psychologically traumatizing.”

McKenna agrees. She said that while many employers provide counselling services to nurses who have been abused, not all nurses in Ontario enjoy that particular benefit.

“What needs to be in place is an effective policy. You can write all the papers you want, but without policy that forces employers to provide the minimum standards of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, nothing will change,” she said.

“Nurses have the highest incidence of on the job assault, over firefighters and police officers, and in order for us to help change that reality, we need to inform our members of their rights and educate them on what employers should be providing them.”

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