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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Cornered by a woman with a knife
By Nick Triggle
BBC News, health reporter

Helena Mckeown
Dr Mckeown was pregnant at the time of the attack
Thousands of NHS staff are assaulted by patients each year. Doctors say many of their colleagues are "working in fear". What can be done?

It was already dark by the time Salisbury GP Dr Helena McKeown got the emergency call one winter's evening five years ago.

A local schizophrenic patient had requested a doctor and Dr McKeown was alerted.

Aware of the condition of the patient, Dr McKeown had phoned the police to request support.

I was scared, I didn't know what to do
Dr Helena McKeown

It was agreed the policeman would wait outside on the street while Dr McKeown went in and would only approach the 2nd floor flat if she had not returned within 15 minutes.

Once inside, the woman began getting aggressive, eventually throwing a knife at Dr McKeown which narrowly missed her.

Cornered by patient

Dr McKeown, who was pregnant with her third child at the time, found herself cornered with the patient once again in possession of the knife until the policeman came in.

She said: "I was scared, I didn't know what to do. I was trying to talk to her, but she was just getting more and more aggressive.

I have been a GP for 10 years and patients are getting more aggressive
Beth McCarron-Nash

"But once the policeman came in, he took control of the situation. He started calming her down, he knew just what to do.

"What struck me was that because he had had the training, he was able to take command of the situation.

"I will never forget it and I think there are important lessons for doctors.

"I was lucky that a policeman was available to accompany me on the visit.

"If he had not been there, or if his timing was not so good, I could have been killed.

"My children could be growing up without a mother."

Attack alarms

She recounted her experience during a debate on the risks doctors face at the British Medical Association's conference in Torquay.

Doctors called for all health professionals to be given personal attack alarms so they can alert the NHS or police when they are at risk.

It comes as latest figures show that nearly 60,000 NHS staff were assaulted last year - one in every 23 health workers.

But Dr McKeown said doctors needed more support than that. "We need to be trained about how to deal with situations, it is no good just giving us alarms."

There is currently no mandatory conflict resolution training in doctors' training - although the NHS Security Management Service has started rolling out courses.

Some GP surgeries also have panic alarms installed underneath desks, while the NHS Security Management Service said local NHS trusts do carry out risk assessments and provide staff with personal alarms where necessary.

But Beth McCarron-Nash, a GP from Devon who was once assaulted by a mental health patient in a hospital, said: "Staff are getting more support in some areas, but it is quite patchy.

"I have been a GP for 10 years and patients are getting more aggressive.

"GPs are especially vulnerable. Social workers and community psychiatric nurses will often work in pairs, but we don't have that luxury.

"We need more help, too many doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are working in fear."

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