Nearly half of emergency doctors have been assaulted at work, report says

A lighted emergency room sign outside of a hospital
Violence is pervasive in the ER, according to a new survey. (Getty/MJFelt)

Nearly half of emergency department physicians have been assaulted on the job, according to a new report. 

The American College of Emergency Physicians surveyed more than 3,500 emergency doctors and 47% said they had been physically assaulted while working. In addition, 71% said they had witnessed the assault of a colleague. 

Just 10% of the respondents said they were not assaulted themselves or had not witnessed an assault, the survey found. Meanwhile, 39 respondents said they had been assaulted more than six times in the past year. 

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Leigh Vinocur, M.D., former chair of ACEP’s Emergency Department Violence Committee, said that while the results are troubling, they’re not a surprise to anyone who’s worked in the ED. 

“I think the emergency department is kind of that perfect recipe in the healthcare setting,” Vinocur told FierceHealthcare. “It’s very emotionally volatile.”

RELATED: To combat workplace violence, step up reporting systems 

The emergency room is a “kind of microcosm of our society,” Vinocur said, and community issues, such as gang violence or the opioid epidemic, can spill over into the ER. High numbers of behavioral health patients present to the ED, as well, increasing the risks for clinicians. 

Patients were involved in the vast majority (97%) of assaults noted in the survey, though 28% said a patient’s family member or friend was involved as well. 

“We board patients now,” Vinocur said. “They’re stuck in the ER for days waiting for beds. That just creates the perfect storm.” 

The survey found an even split between male and female physicians on these issues. Forty-eight percent of men said they had been assaulted, and 71% said they had witnessed an assault, while 44% and 72% of women, respectively, said the same. 

RELATED: Beth Israel Deaconess battles workplace violence 

Vinocur noted that the study only surveyed emergency doctors, but nurses in the department are at higher risk for assault as they spend far more face-to-face time with patients. The Bureau of Labor estimates that 50% of workplace assaults take place in healthcare settings

Though assaults in the emergency department—and sites of care more broadly—are common, clinicians are hesitant to report these situations, she said. Providers are trained to “do no harm” to patients, which can prevent reports, and they may also simply become numb to the routine violence and harassment, she said. 

Because clinicians are unlikely to report assaults, the survey may be an underestimate of the problem, Vinocur said. 

"How many times can you go to a job where you're cursed at, spit on or threatened?" she said. “I think we have to kind of stand together and say this won’t be tolerated."