Middlemore ED says violent incidents have almost halved since number of security guards increased

By Lauren Crimp for RNZ

Violent incidents at Middlemore Hospital's emergency department have nearly halved with extra security guards on the job around the clock.

In a bid to curb assaults at hospitals over summer, Minister of Health Dr Shane Reti last month announced extra support for EDs until the end of February.

Middlemore was one of eight "higher-risk" EDs that received five extra security staff - and a further 24 EDs received between two and five additional guards.

The hospital recorded 13 reports of abuse last month, which was a big drop from the 22 in December 2022, said acting chief medical officer Dr Andrew Connolly.

Of those, only one situation was classified as serious: a punch-up between two visitors outside the ED.

"They've been here for just under half of the month of December, so it's too early to draw major conclusions, but we're very pleased," he said.

"It's a message that seems common throughout the country, that the feedback from frontline staff has been overwhelmingly positive."

The guards' presence alone seemed to have helped, said Connolly - and he wanted them to become a permanent fixture.

"If I had a crystal ball, I would expect that by the end of February we will be seeing significant improvements that are attributable to the increased number of security staff.

"So, yes, we would like to see this become normal business."

An emergency physician at Hawke's Bay Hospital shared that wish.

Long wait times and growing patient frustration had led to more and more instances of abuse and violence, said Dr Scott Boyes.

"It's such a day-to-day part of our work now, you know, these confrontations, high stress environments, overcrowding.

"We don't even incident report a lot of the things that happen, just because it's now become such a commonplace scenario."

Because of that, Boyes could not say whether things had improved in his ED - but he "definitely" felt safer with the two extra guards.

"Having that extra level of support and security just makes everyone feel a little bit more comfortable that things aren't going to escalate out of control."

Extra security a 'band-aid solution'

But verbal abuse and violence would not go away with extra security guards, said New Zealand Nurses Organisation president Anne Daniels.

Instead, it sent a message to the public that hospitals were not safe, she said.

"I cannot blame people for getting angry and upset for waiting.

"They come to us in primary healthcare and the hospitals because they need help, and we're not giving it to them when and where it should be given."

The money was better spent on addressing the dire shortage of medical staff - and extra security was just a band-aid solution, she said.

"The way forward is only by having a health system that works for the people when and where it's needed, reduces the wait times, and provides safe care.

"And we can only do that if we have enough nurses, doctors and allied health staff, mental health staff; so that's where the money needs to go."

Te Whatu Ora said it had not yet gathered the data to ascertain whether the extra security had made a difference.