Health brief: The ‘unsafe’ world of healthcare workers
European doctors are sounding the alarm over the growing incidence of physical and verbal aggression against healthcare workers.
All around the world, up to 38% of health workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers, according to the latest figures released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February 2022.
Many more are threatened or exposed to verbal aggression too, the WHO found.
In Europe, violence against healthcare professionals is increasing at an “alarming rate”, according to the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME).
“We need to recognise the impact of violence on healthcare professionals, which in the end affects not only the workforce but patient care”, CPME President Dr Christiaan Keijzer said in a statement on Sunday (12 March), marking the European awareness day of violence against doctors and other healthcare professionals.
Violence against the healthcare workforce includes physical and verbal violence with multiple consequences on the victims’ health such as physical injuries and impacts on mental health.
In the most extreme cases, aggression can lead to death, European doctors warned.
In France, the average of healthcare workers reporting frequent physical assaults in hospitals is almost as high as in the EU, with 37% of hospital health professionals regularly assaulted, according to figures from the French Ministry of Health.
For this reason, the ministry announced on 3 February that a control plan would be put in place by the summer.
“It is essential to rely on healthcare professionals as well as all stakeholders and actors involved in caregiver safety to think of effective measures that correspond to their daily expectations and constraints.”, said Agnès Firmin Le Bodo, the minister of territorial organization and health professions.
Nurses and women more at risk
Some categories of healthcare professionals are more at risk of violence: nurses and other staff directly involved in patient care, emergency room staff and paramedics, according to the WHO.
“Nurses as a group, and women in particular, appear to be especially vulnerable, with double the risk of being the victims of violence”, the European Federation of Nurses Associations (EFN) stated in a press release published in November 2022.
A survey by EFN with data gathered in 2021 found that 28 national nurses’ associations across Europe confirmed almost unanimously that violence against nurses is a significant concern and does not always come from patients.
In 2020, women represented 78% of the healthcare workforce, according to Eurostat. Across the bloc, the share varies from 61% in Greece to over 90% in Estonia and Latvia.
“Representative associations from Denmark, Portugal, and the UK pointed out that up to 30% of nurses are potentially subject to sexual harassment in the workplace”, EFN’s survey found, while in Germany up to 41% of nurses reported abuse from other health professionals.
“In terms of health workers, this [harassment] is something that has been looked at. Women are a large part of the healthcare workforce in the UE,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told EURACTIV in a recent interview.
Calling on the Commission to take actions
Another worrying set of data was released in early March by the tripartite European Union Agency, whose role is to provide knowledge in the area of social and work-related policies.
The study said that health professionals in the EU are three times more likely to report unwanted sexual attention. Likewise, healthcare and protective services workers are 2-3 times more likely to report bullying, harassment, and violence.
The condition of ‘burnout’ due to the increasing number of aggressions is becoming “a growing factor in professionals choosing to leave the health sector altogether”, according to CPME.
In the long run, this could compromise the quality of care and put the healthcare provision at risk, something that is considered by the WHO as a potential “immense financial loss” for the health sector.
“It is critical to promote a culture of respect for healthcare professionals, and provide resources to report and support incidences when violence occurs”, CPME’s Keijzer said.
The doctors’ association called on the Commission to support governments by providing benchmarks for minimum workforce capacities and addressing healthcare professionals in the upcoming comprehensive approach to mental health.
“The health workforce is already in crisis. We call for policymakers and the general public to help keep healthcare professionals safe”, CPME’s Keijzer concluded.
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14-15 March – #ShiningALight exhibition in Strasbourg
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21-23 March – European Health Tech Summit
21 March – The Future of European Pain Research
22-23 March – European Parliament’s environment and health committee meeting
27-28 March – International Medical Devices Regulators Forum