white lady with short blond hair in black scrubs on with a nurses badge at a podium with a mic with a brown background
Charge nurse Destiny, a Georgia nurse who declined to give her last name to protect her privacy, testifies on assault as a nurse. (Screenshot from committee meeting)

ATLANTA — Health care workers in Georgia are seeking stricter penalties for those who assault them on the job, and other measures intended to protect them amid a rise in such attacks. 

Representatives for the industry made their case during a meeting last week of the Senate Study Committee on Violence Against Health Care Workers.

Destiny, a nurse at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton who declined to give her last name to protect her privacy, said she was attacked by a female patient who grabbed her hair so tightly that it took five nurses and three security guards to remove her. 

“I was kicked and punched in the head,” Destiny said. “I was bit, and she attempted to drag me to the bathroom.” 

Destiny said she suffered a concussion and back injury, in addition to scratches and bruises, as a result of the attack. She decided to press charges against the patient after the attack. 

As the charges were processed, the patient’s family requested copies of the report, which included Destiny’s home address. Destiny characterized this as a breach of privacy that made her fear for the safety of her two children, who are 16 and 13 years old and are often at home without her. 

“This is not part of our job,” she said. “We are there to take care of patients, not be harmed.”  

Several presenters said incidents like Destiny’s have caused health care professionals to leave their hospitals or the field entirely. 

Health care workers accounted for 73 percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses due to violence in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bar graph of violent incidents of healthcare workers in 2011-2018
Chart showing nonfatal violent incidents per rate of 10,000 full-time workers from 2011-2018 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

In Georgia, current law classifies intentional assault against emergency medical department or emergency services workers as a felony punishable by no less than 10 years. Under normal circumstances, an assault could be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Multiple speakers asked that the current law be expanded to include all health care staff rather than exclusively protecting emergency health workers, who are considered public safety officers under the law. Additional recommendations included mandatory de-escalation and violence prevention training for hospital staff, as well as increased funding for proper staffing. 

Anna Adams, the senior vice president of external affairs at the Georgia Hospital Association, said these incidents have been exacerbated by the stress surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In the past year and a half, we have seen a lack of nursing staff, and a lack of respiratory staff,” said Adams. “These individuals are showing up to work every day as health care heroes, and they’re being abused by our patients, family members, and frankly sometimes by their staff.” 

Kevin August, the executive director of public safety at Grady Hospital, said any new legislation must be easily enforceable and hold people accountable.

“They can create legislation that has teeth — that goes beyond the emergency room because the violence is occurring all over the place,” August said. 

August also suggested that the guidelines that hospitals use to determine how much security is needed are leading to a lack of protection. Making sure that hospitals and health care centers have the funding and guidelines to hire a proper amount of security staffing would help enforce new legislation, he said. 

A veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, August said that in addition to increased staffing, health care security personnel should undergo standardized training for responding to workplace violence. 

Members of the committee said that they hope the Legislature will be moved by health care workers’ testimonies to take up the issue when it convenes for its next regular session in January. 

The committee, which is temporary and will be abolished on December 31, plans to hold additional meetings, though none are currently scheduled. 

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