Emergency department crisis: Doctors fear death likely amid surge in violent attacks

Emergency department (ED) doctors at two Auckland hospitals are warning it's only a matter of time before someone is killed or seriously injured in a violent attack.

Two senior medical officers have written to Te Whatu Ora requesting a permanent, 24/7 security service dedicated to EDs.

A sign on the wall says "this is a zero tolerance to violence zone".

It's a blunt directive at busy hospital emergency departments that just isn't getting through to some patients.

"The frequency of violent incidents is just so great now, and the current supply of security staff across those hospitals is insufficient to meet that level," said Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton.

Dalton leads the union that represents doctors. She's speaking on behalf of two senior medical officers who've anonymously written to Te Whatu Ora warning that "death or serious injury from a violent incident at North Shore or Waitakere EDs is an imminent short-term risk", and they've requested "a 24/7 security service dedicated to EDs".

It's a request that's supported by nurses.

"We can't forget that short-staffing is increasing the level of anxiety and frustration," said NZ Nurses Organisation Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku.

Back in June, Newshub revealed assaults on health staff had doubled in just a year, and in their letter, the two senior doctors said front-line staff are now experiencing violence and aggression on a daily basis - and most of it is going unreported.

"A recent example of a doctor who was trying to support an unwell patient who was trying to run away, ended up being punched," Dalton said.

"There are far too many incidents, which makes it completely unacceptable," Nuku said.

The doctors said general hospital security is highly valued but isn't adequately resourced to respond immediately in the ED.

A Te Whatu Ora spokesperson told Newshub it accepts that "additional investment is required to increase security resourcing at North Shore and Waitakere hospitals" with a particular focus on emergency departments, adding: "We hope to be in a position very soon to introduce a new security staffing model".

Dalton said something has to be done.

"We mustn't wait for people to say, 'gosh that was terrible, now we're going to fix it'," Dalton said.

Because as patients arrive at EDs, staff are no longer just thinking about how best to treat them, but also how to keep themselves and their colleagues safe.