Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, is an internal medicine physician in San Francisco, host of TED Health and the founder of endwellproject.org.
When President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke about fighting an epidemic from the White House Rose Garden last week, it wasn’t a virus they were talking about. "Guns are the number one killer of children in America, more than car accidents, more than cancer, more than other diseases,” President Biden said, announcing the creation of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
The choice of words, loaded with healthcare analogies, is no accident. For years, the government has been funding research studying gun violence as a public health epidemic, and the new office is designed to coordinate a public health approach to the emergency with more resources and support for survivors, families, and communities.
As the new office goes to battle against the gun violence epidemic, hospitals and clinics will be a key battleground — and it isn’t just because healthcare workers are on the front lines providing support for survivors. The healthcare profession has the unfortunate distinction of being one of America's most violent fields.
Health care workers are five times as likely to experience workplace violence as other workers, accounting for 73 percent of non-fatal injuries from violence in government data from 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available. And it has only been getting worse: in a 2022 survey from National Nurses United, 48 percent of hospital nurses said they'd seen violence increase over the previous year.
In August, a man shot and killed a security guard in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. In May, a man opened fire in a medical center waiting room in Atlanta, killing one woman and injuring four other women. Last October, a man killed two workers in the maternity ward of a Dallas hospital. And in June 2022, a man shot and killed four people in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, medical office, including a surgeon he blamed for pain after back surgery.
The fallout is severe. Poor working conditions and rising incidents of workplace violence are leading to unprecedented burnout and attrition in the healthcare field, which is a direct threat to patient care. In 2022, the Surgeon General warned of a looming crisis in the nation’s health infrastructure with a projected shortage of three million healthcare workers in the next five years. In a January 2023 survey of over 18,000 nurses, 30% said they're looking to quit their career, with 63% of them seeking a safer working environment.
It's alarming that American healthcare workers now face more non-fatal injuries from workplace violence than even law enforcement officers. But there are efforts underway to create a safer working environment, which the Office of Gun Violence Prevention should help speed up to ensure that healthcare workers can be the powerful allies they need to be in the fight against the gun violence epidemic.
The American Hospital Association's Hospitals Against Violence (HAV) initiative has been developing programs on the national, state and local levels to prevent workplace violence and help hospital employees cope with the impact of violence. In September, Senators Joe Manchin and Marco Rubio introduced the bipartisan Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act which would make attacking healthcare workers a crime under federal law, similar to the protections in place for flight crews and airport workers. A similar bill was introduced in the House in April by Representatives Larry Bucshon and Madeleine Dean.
Every day, healthcare workers put on their scrubs and face an unpredictable world, hoping to make a difference, to save a life. They shouldn’t have to fear for their own in the process. If we want to save lives, we have to prioritize saving our healthcare system.