The pandemic put a spotlight on the workplace risks faced by health care providers treating patients infected with COVID-19 and other invisible but potentially fatal pathogens.
Tuesday's deadly gunfire at an Allina Health Clinic in Buffalo stands as a grim reminder of another risk inherent in medical settings — workplace violence. It's a longstanding occupational hazard in health care that defies easy remedy. But after this tragedy, there's a clear obligation in Minnesota and elsewhere to examine existing safeguards and find ways to strengthen them.
Sadly, caregiving comes with risks, as individuals wrestling with disease, pain and often fear seek medical attention and inappropriately act out against the very people trying to help them. "The health care and social service industries experience the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence and are 5 times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury than workers overall," according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
About 20 health workers are killed each year at their places of employment, the agency reports. In addition, health care workers "accounted for 73 percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses due to violence in 2018.''
In December, the authors of an American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) article dubbed health care workplace violence a "persistent pandemic." The evidence AJMC rounded up included a poll finding that 71% of American doctors reported experiencing at least one incident of violence. Another study indicated that 82% of nurses had been assaulted at least once during their careers.
The authors also make an obvious though necessary point: This is a problem all of us have a stake in solving. The trauma and physical injuries understandably can affect employees' motivation and performance or cause them to leave these vital occupations — with detrimental downstream effects on the "delivery of health care, decreasing quality and accessibility,'' the authors wrote.
Twenty-six states already have laws targeting health care workplace violence. Minnesota is one. A 2015 law defines kicking, scratching, urinating on and sexually harassing a health care worker as an "act of violence." It appears aimed at protecting hospitals' emergency care staff, one of the most likely health care disciplines to experience workplace violence.
The Minnesota law also requires hospitals to have a plan in place to prepare for violence and to provide training for staff.
These are all sensible measures. Yet Lindsay Overbay, a 37-year-old mom of two young children, is dead, and four of her colleagues are wounded after Tuesday's tragedy at the Wright County clinic. And a police report showed that the alleged shooter, Gregory Paul Ulrich, had violent plans for revenge against Allina because he was unhappy with his care, according to a Star Tribune news story.
Allina took steps to protect workers, obtaining a restraining order against Ulrich. But after he violated that in late 2018, he was found mentally incompetent and the case was dismissed, the Star Tribune reported.
What other measures could have and should been have been in place after that to protect Allina workers? How did Ulrich get a gun? And did he receive mental health or substance abuse treatment? Answering these questions is a good starting place as lawmakers and law enforcement do their duty and examine how better to protect the state's world-class medical providers.