Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

NHS staff suffering abuse on the emergency frontline

By Rowan Bridge
BBC Radio 5 live

An abusive member of the public in a hospital
Around 90,000 are treated in the emergency department annually

A new law has come into force making it a criminal offence for people to cause a nuisance or disturbance in NHS hospitals.

It means authorised staff will have the power to throw people off the premises if they are verbally abusive, intimidating or making excessive noise.

The NHS says physical removal will only be used as a last resort and will not be used instead of trying to calm people down.

I spent last Saturday in the emergency department of Southampton General Hospital to see what it is like on the frontline.

It is 0200 on Sunday morning and a drunk patient, his clothes hanging off his shoulder and spattered with blood, is abusing the medical staff there to help him.

He has already had to be moved from one bay after interfering with the treatment of another patient and now Sister Sarah Swanton has decided she has to move him to the waiting room because he is upsetting people.

"Sometimes on a Saturday I could call security for one person several times or several different people, but it is very very common, it does always happen."
Dionne McKenzie, receptionist at Southampton General Hospital

"We're going to sit you out in the waiting room, give you a glass of water," she says.

He replies by making an abusive comment.

He is wheeled into the waiting room but despite being warned several times about his attitude the final straw comes when he racially abuses Dionne McKenzie, one of the receptionists.

Having spoken to the registrar on duty and satisfied themselves that the man is safe to discharge they order the security staff to remove him from the hospital grounds.

The reception staff are often the in the frontline of abuse and Ms McKenzie says these experiences are sadly not uncommon.

She said: "We get sworn at on a regular basis, get told that we don't know what we're doing and we don't care etc.

CCTV cameras will be used to help prevent violence against NHS staff

"Another thing is people wanting transport home and not understanding why we can't get them home. We get a lot of youngsters or people with no money who then take it out on us because they can't get home."

The poster taped to the window on reception which says in capitals "Stop Abuse Of NHS Staff" does not seem to be registering.

Ms McKenzie said: "Out of a month I do eight nights and six of those one person will be removed or security called.

"Sometimes on a Saturday I could call security for one person several times or several different people, but it is very very common, it does always happen."

Within the hour, Ms Swanton is on the receiving end of more abuse, this time from a man on a night out and his girlfriend.

He has been seen by the triage nurse but is not deemed to be a priority and, as on most Saturday nights, patients are having to wait.

Tensions boil over and Ms Swanton takes the brunt of their frustrations.

The man sarcastically thanks her while his girlfriend swears at her.


Although she remains calm and composed throughout it all I can see in Ms Swanton's eyes that she has found what happened upsetting.

Around 90,000 people pass through the emergency department at Southampton every year and the vast majority of them will behave perfectly well.

The concern is that the small minority that do decide to cause disruption have a disproportionate impact on both staff and patient care.

And the experiences here in Southampton are repeated at emergency departments across the UK. The accents may change, but the abuse and disruption happens in any major inner city A&E unit.

By 0420 (GMT) the waiting room is still busy with the fallout of a Saturday night out, with people who've been punched or fallen or are suffering the effects of alcohol in one way or another.

Ms Swanton says: "It is still quite lively in the waiting room and there are still a few hours to go yet so I'm sure there will be a few more incidents to come."

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