Ottawa hospital staff plead for kindness amid rise in reports of abuse

Staff members at Ottawa hospitals are pleading with patients and their families to be kind as reports of verbal and physical abuse have spiked, especially in the emergency department.

Verbal and physical abuse by patients, families on the rise, especially in the ER

Ottawa hospital staff members are pleading with patients, their families and caregivers to be kinder to nurses, doctors, and other frontline hospital staff. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

Staff members at Ottawa hospitals are pleading with patients and their families to be kind as reports of verbal and physical abuse have spiked, especially in the emergency department. 

The Queensway Carleton Hospital tweeted out its request on Monday because staff have recently faced "increased levels of verbal and physical aggression from patients and families."

Pre-pandemic the hospital, located on Baseline Road in Ottawa's west end, would call security once or twice a week to deal with verbal or physical incidents involving patients or families, according to emergency director Brian Smith.

Now, that's once or twice per day, he says.

"We know you're tired and frustrated — it's been a long 16 months," Smith said in a statement, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Please be kind to anyone who's trying to help you, be they a health care worker or the clerk at your local grocery store. Everyone deserves kindness. They're tired, too."

Dr. Lisa Fischer works in the emergency and palliative-care departments at The Ottawa Hospital. (Submitted by Lisa Fischer)

Patients at 'the end of their rope'

Dr. Lisa Fischer can relate. She works in the emergency and palliative-care departments at The Ottawa Hospital, and has witnessed how frustrated patients in the waiting room take their anger out on front-line doctors, nurses, and orderlies. 

In an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, Fischer said her hospital has also seen an increase in calls to security usually due to "verbal anger from patients who are frustrated and have reached the end of their rope."

Wait times are a flash point as patients sit — sometimes alone, and in pain or distress — for triaged attention, and COVID-19 has caused a huge backlog for treatment, while limiting access to in-person visits outside of the ER.

"We have to treat people with kindness. And we try," said Fischer, who heard one nurse proclaim she couldn't handle her work, or the abuse, anymore.

"We're all trying our best."

Staff at the Queensway Carleton Hospital wave as they receive a salute from first responders earlier in the pandemic. (Facebook)

Nurse called 'evil human'

Fischer says she's used to dealing with negativity from patients in the ER who — by definition — are not having a good day, but that's worsened.

She now worries if a patient or family member is waiting to confront her in the hospital parking lot.

A recent incident involved an unvaccinated patient caregiver who declared COVID-19 was fake. She was asked repeatedly to don a mask or keep a safe distance from staff, but refused. When she was asked to leave, she became verbally abusive. 

"To be called an 'evil human' by someone over something very simple, such as asking to wear a mask, I think really hit home," said Fischer.

Hospital staff are trained in de-escalation techniques, and there's usually security stationed at hospitals 24/7, though not always in the ER itself. With the potential of another wave of COVID-19, Fischer says "a lot of really good people" have been hurt by the pressure on hospitals.

"We know when people are frustrated, it's usually coming from a place of fear. We do try to understand that emotion and work through. Health-care workers are pretty resilient, but humans can only withstand so much," she said.

Fischer said the health-care system needs to balance solving underlying problems that lead to patients' frustrations, while also fixing a system that makes frontline workers "bear the brunt" of that frustration.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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