Violence against hospital staff 'out of control' - doctors' union

The union representing doctors says violence against hospital staff is "out of control".

Data released to Newshub under the Official Information Act from DHBs nationwide details hundreds of alarming cases of staff receiving death threats, being punched and abused by intoxicated patients and visitors.

The Resident Doctors' Association has labelled the problem a "growing plague" that is "massively under-reported". Emergency doctors agree the level of violence is only increasing.

Newshub has an exclusive report on the problem in the latest of the Because It Matters series.

Just two weeks ago, security footage caught two intoxicated men arguing at a busy New Zealand hospital emergency department. It didn't take long for a brawl to ensue.

Members of the public and a nurse tried to intervene before security guards arrived on the scene to help contain the violence. Eventually, one of the drunk visitors was forced outside.

Sadly, this type of behaviour is not unusual or isolated to just one hospital - and often it's the hospital staff themselves who end up being hurt.

"It's getting worse, it's getting a lot worse," says Dr Deborah Powell, NZ Resident Doctors' Association national secretary.

These are just a few examples of the abuse from drunk visitors and patients recorded over the year and a half from January 2018 to June 2019.

At Whangarei Hospital, a drunk patient turned up brandishing a stick demanding to see a medical officer.

A woman in labour arrived with a drunken support crew who played in wheelchairs and abused and intimidated staff.

Canterbury Hospital staff were assaulted, visitors tried to kiss or touch staff and one person exposed themselves.

At Waitemata DHB, staff had projectiles thrown at them and one visitor made death threats against staff.

"Sexual abuse, verbal abuse. It's a growing plague in our hospital systems. I can't really put it any other way. The number of incidents, the severity of incidents are increasing," Dr Powell told Newshub.

Middlemore Hospital emergency department clinical director Dr Vanessa Thornton says threats and verbal abuse are common.

"We've had doctors assaulted and knocked out. We've had nurses assaulted and attacked," she says.

"Most people in the emergency department would have experienced this in the course of their careers."

Data from Counties Manukau DHB documents 956 incidents of assaults, inappropriate behaviour or verbal abuse over the space of a year and a half.

"Our security response is pretty good but we are reviewing this as part of a process around the documented increase around these events," Dr Thornton says.

There were a further 224 "code orange" events in the eight months to March this year - when patients become aggressive, intimidating or made staff feel uncomfortable.

Alcohol is a big part of the problem. In Counties Manukau, there were 24 'code orange' events in the resuscitation room where doctors and nurses try to save lives. Half of those 'code orange' events were because of issues with intoxicated patients.

"It's much harder for us to work with the patients when their behaviour is uncontrolled and they're aggressive," Dr Thornton says.

Southern DHB called police or security 113 times to deal with intoxicated visitors or patients.

Sixty-eight staff were abused, harassed or physically assaulted.

"It's not just restricted to Dunedin. It's happening in Invercargill and it's happening in Queenstown increasingly, I understand, and it is a concern for us," says Dr John Chambers, Dunedin Hospital emergency department clinical leader.

At Queenstown's emergency clinic, security staff are not trained to restrain violent visitors. If there is a problem, the advice is to call the police.

Dr Chambers says methamphetamine is making matters worse.

"There's a growing drug problem in Queenstown and in Invercargill and they're seeing that in terms of quite aggressive, violent behaviour," he says.

Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr John Bonning lays blame with New Zealand's drinking culture - and the Government's inadequate regulation of the alcohol industry.

"I've been punched in the face once and kicked in the face once by separate intoxicated people," he says.

"Society needs to wake up and pressure the Government to change some of their attitudes around licensing, sale of alcohol, readily available alcohol."

While the data obtained by Newshub reveals hundreds of cases, unions say only a fraction of incidents actually get reported.

"Unfortunately, because we haven't dealt with this problem, staff have felt there's no point in reporting," Dr Powell says. "Nothing will get done about it."

However, Dr Thornton says such incidents are serious and encourages all staff to report violence or aggression.

Her message - if you're intoxicated and not unwell, stay away.

"My staff come to work everyday to help patients, to help people," she says. "You don't come to work to be assaulted, shouted at or knocked out."

But to our shame, that type of behaviour is now happening much more often.