Violence against healthcare workers a global and growing problem

10 Jul 2024

A University of Queensland-led study has found violence against healthcare workers is increasing in both frequency and severity around the world with significant implications for health systems and patient care.

UQ Medicine graduate Dr Conor O’Brien led the review of more than 3,000 studies across health systems globally, mapping the causes, prevalence and impacts of violence against healthcare workers between 2016 and 2023.

Dr O’Brien said those most at risk were in emergency departments, on nightshifts, and younger, less experienced staff.

“Some incidents resulted in fatalities, with more than 370 healthcare workers killed in the past 7 years, including 161 medics in conflict zones,” Dr O’Brien said.

“There is evidence female workers were at greater risk of non-physical violence and sexual harassment, while male workers were at higher risk of physical violence.

“Acts of violence included verbal threats or intimidation and those most at risk were in emergency departments, those on nightshifts, and younger less experienced staff.”

Dr O’Brien said Australia was among countries that had implemented numerous policies and legislative measures addressing workplace violence over the past two decades.

“These measures range from new criminal offences for perpetrators to legislative obligations on management to protect staff,” he said.

“But although important, they haven’t led to reductions in violent incidents which highlights the complexity of the problem.”

Professor Andre van Zundert from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine said a range of factors contributed to violence against healthcare workers including a shortage of staff or resources, long wait times, poor communication and insufficient security and organisational support.

“Patient expectations of healthcare systems also appear to have increased,” he said.

“Tensions between the public and healthcare workers escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A framework to assess the risk of workplace violence proposed by the researchers considers internal and external factors including staff, patient, facility and socio-cultural factors.

The review included Professor Paul Barach from Thomas Jefferson University in the United States.

The research paper was published in eClinicalMedicine, part of The Lancet group of journals.

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