UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Centers sees uptick in violence against healthcare workers

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RIO RANCHO, N.M. – The University of New Mexico Health System is pleading with patients and visitors not to assault hospital staff. This problem is not exclusive to New Mexicans. Hospitals across the country are seeing an alarming increase in workplace violence. 

Pamela Demarest, the chief operating and nursing officer at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, said she started her nursing career in 1974. It was not long before she had her first physical encounter with an aggressive patient at just 18 years old.

“I was punched in the face, and my arm was grabbed and twisted, and these are patients who have dementia,” she said. “So at the time, I thought it was pretty normal.”

Today, the violence continues. Demarest told KOB 4 abuse spiked during the pandemic when people refused to wear masks and tempers ran high.

“We’ve had people who have had their arms broken, you know, strains to the wrists, are not able to work because of some of the injuries that they’ve had,” she said. “Even as a trauma nurse many years ago, I don’t remember the type of escalation that we’re seeing here at health care, we even have people who are verbally or physically abused at the entrance.”       

Demarest said higher patient volumes and longer wait times for care may be contributing to another spike in workplace abuse.

“There are times where people are yelling and using profanity,” she explained. “That is considered workplace violence.”

She and her colleagues are asking patients to practice patience.

“We’ve been dealing with a pandemic with decreased amount of workforce and increased amount of patients for about three years,” she said. “I think if people would practice more grace and really think about how their words and actions affect other human beings, we’re all struggling here.”

Demarest added that increased violence in hospitals is driving away health care workers in an already understaffed field. 

“We have a lot of difficulty recruiting nurses,” she said. “I know of a lot of nurses who have retired.”

In 2022, UNM SRMC recorded 359 behavioral incidents ranging from verbal assault to physical violence. Of those 359 incidents, 34 were considered violence against a health care worker.

“Family members are also becoming increasingly more aggressive toward people who are caring for their loved ones,” Demarest said.

To keep the violence under control, security officers with UNM Health System undergo critical incident training and de-escalation training with the Albuquerque Police Department. They also have to take a class called “Managing of Aggressive Behavior” (M.O.A.B.).

“All the nurses and staff in the emergency department also take M.O.A.B. training,” Demarest said.

When a patient or visitor becomes aggressive, a simple code or panic button will set those with training into action. 

Additionally, UNM Health System added signage throughout all its facilities, explaining what constitutes as “aggressive behavior” as well as its zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence.

“Just the knowledge for the frontline staff members that we have a zero-tolerance has really made a difference to most people working here,” said Demarest.