At the height of flu season this past winter, I accompanied one of my parents on a visit to a busy emergency department (ED). While everything checked out fine and we were sent home later that day, the experience involved sitting in a patient room for several hours while staff ran a number of tests and monitored vitals.

During that time, we heard an elderly patient’s agitation escalate as he repeatedly asked staff members to explain why he was there, despite their best efforts to reassure and calm him down. In another area of the ED, I overheard a nurse tell a patient to sit down and listen to her instructions or she’d need to call for back-up.

It was a powerful reminder of the hazards and challenges clinical staff face every shift while trying to focus on delivering quality care.

Data on healthcare workplace violence

A recent study, “The Aggressive Incidents in Medical Settings (AIMS) Study: Advancing Measurement to Promote Prevention of Workplace Violence,” featured in the March 2024 issue of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, further highlights this issue.

Aiming to measure nurse and patient care assistant exposure rates to patient aggression in real time, researchers found that the most common precipitants of workplace violence included medication administration (18.6 percent), waiting for care (17.2 percent), and delivering food/drinks (15.9 percent).

The most aggressive events occurred during the day shift (50.7 percent), with the majority of events managed with verbal de-escalation as the only intervention, according to the report findings.

“Of great concern, our findings demonstrate that staff are confronted with aggressive behaviors practically every time they step foot in the hospital,” Joanne DeSanto Iennaco, principal investigator of the study, professor of nursing and psychiatry at Yale University School of Nursing and School of Medicine, and director of the Post-MSN Clinical DNP Program at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., said in a press release.

Designing for healthcare staff safety

Designing for staff satisfaction is already high on project teams’ priority lists to better address employees’ mental and physical health as well as help with organizations’ retention efforts.

Understanding the pinch points or triggers of patient aggression within the care environment can further support these efforts, ensuring healthcare workers are given the most optimal—and safest—environments to deliver care.

Studies like this help inform these decisions and remind us all of what’s at stake.