Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 00:33 UK

Violence part of life for NHS staff

By Catherine Marston
BBC News

Drunk woman elbowing man
Virtually no member of staff has escaped abuse, says one consultant

A violent, drunk woman elbows a man in the throat.

She is swearing and threatening to punch him really hard.

Staggering and barely able to stand up, she is resisting any medical help.

She has her arm across his neck, trying to choke him and is refusing to listen to his appeals for her to calm down. She thumps him on his arm and continues to swear.

This is not a scene from outside a nightclub during a fight. It's happening on a weekday evening at a hospital emergency department in Gateshead.

The nurses appeal for her to be quiet - she is upsetting other patients, they tell her, the emergency department is very busy and so she must try to calm down. It all falls on deaf ears.

Aggressive drunk

Earlier in the evening another extremely drunk woman arrives at the Queen Elizabeth hospital.

I've had people who've chased me down the corridor threatening to kill me before
Bob Jarmin

She is a regular at the emergency department and staff say she is frequently aggressive and abusive.

Tonight she starts swearing and hurling abuse, she does not want staff to help her and she calls one nurse a foul name before starting to smoke in the toilets.

Staff quickly call security and the abusive woman is eventually escorted off the premises.

All this on a Monday evening at just one of England's hospitals.

The consultant here, Bob Jarmin, says there is virtually no member of staff - from receptionist to porter, from doctor to cleaner - who has not been abused in some way.

"I've had people try to punch me," he says. "I've had people who've chased me down the corridor threatening to kill me before.

"We often have these as normal incidents."

Hospital emergency department in Gateshead
Staff are accustomed to dealing with violence directly

In an annual survey some 14% of staff at Gateshead health NHS trust reported they had suffered physical abuse in the past year - it is in the highest 20% of acute trusts in England.

Bob Jarmin also says many attacks like the ones we have witnessed are never actually reported.

Senior registrar Dr Reuben Saharia has faced many types of incidents.

He recalls one man being brought in: "We woke this chap up and he seemed disorientated initially and got very, very aggressive.

"He started smashing up the walls, smashing up the equipment and eventually, with rather wild looking eyes, took a swing at me."

He admits the attack really scared him and for a while afterwards he was very wary of any patient coming in for treatment.

He is also angry that some people feel they can behave this way.

"If I went into a bank or I went into a restaurant and started effing and blinding, that would be unacceptable behaviour," he said.

"So why is it considered acceptable in a hospital, of all places?"

Tight security

The hospital does have very good security and they do respond immediately when they are called for help.

But it is still the staff who have to face the abuse directly and it can so easily escalate.

The union Unison says the figures contained in the annual NHS staff survey reveal disturbing levels of violence against staff.

The figures, it says, are depressingly high.

But at hospitals like the Queen Elizabeth, they know only too well that those figures may not even represent the full true picture.


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