CHICAGO -- Violence against nurses in hospitals has become an epidemic. A federal report found 21 percent of nurses report verbal abuse, physical assault, and even rape. Most of the time it’s patients who attack.
In the wake of two separate hostage incidents at suburban hospitals this summer, WGN Investigates has found hospitals are not regularly tracking violence against its nurses or sharing it with the public. Moreover, while nurses say they are frequently attacked, sometimes even sexually assaulted, they don’t feel there are sufficient safety mechanisms in place to protect them at work. Many say staffing is a contributor to violence.
“I was devastated. I’m still devastated,” says Carolyn Hamilton. Hamilton, a registered nurse, treated patients for seven years in the Psych Unit at Jackson Park Hospital.
“You know I have to wear all this makeup on my face to cover up the scars – I still know it’s there. It’s hard sleeping at night. It’s like a nightmare,” she says.
Hamilton says she was beaten twice while working at Jackson Park Hospital. The second time she says a patient nearly ripped her ear off with his bare hands. She says she was also sexually assaulted by a security guard at the hospital.
“I reported to the administration and nothing happened. It’s just like it’s accepted,” she says.
That kind of violence is happening in hospitals around the country. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), violence is four times more common in healthcare than in private industries on average.
Safety in hospitals has been an ongoing concern, especially since this summer when a Salt Lake City nurse was arrested when she refused to let police officers draw blood from an unconscious patient in Utah. The video went viral.
Closer to home, an inmate grabbed a security guard’s gun and held nurses hostage in Geneva, Illinois. One was sexually assaulted, tortured, and beaten at Northwestern’s Delnor Hospital.
A few weeks later a murderer, who was serving a 100-year sentence, held a certified nursing assistant hostage with a makeshift gun at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital in Joliet, Illinois.
“He was like look, stay calm, I don’t want to kill anybody or hurt anybody just do as I say,” says Sarah Lyons, the CNA who was in the room with him. A security guard from the prison was also in the room, but he made a run for it.
“You just left me in here so if that was a real gun I would be dead and that would be it,” Lyons remembers.
Lyons says she feels like hospitals often emphasize the safety of patients, but sometimes forget about the safety of staff.
“At Presence Health the safety and security of our patients, visitors, associates and physicians is our primary concern,” says a Presence Health Spokesperson.
“We follow tested emergency protocols and procedures and regularly participate in drills at our hospitals and in coordination with other organizations. As we learn best practices from our own experiences and from others, we continue to improve safety and security protocols, procedures and staff development to meet the needs that arise from emergency situations.”
But some nurses, like Hamilton, say they have taken their concerns to the hospital administration and seen little change.
“It’s like they not actually taking any accountability for what’s actually going on,” Hamilton says.
We reached out multiple times to Jackson Park Hospital for comment. A spokesperson did not get back to us.
WGN Investigates has found it’s nearly impossible to tell how often violence is happening in local hospitals. While federal law requires hospitals keep a log of workplace injuries, they are not shared publicly.
Only violence that results in a reported injury is included. The hostage situation in Joliet, for example, wouldn’t show up on the logs because while Lyons says she was traumatized, she technically wasn’t injured.
“I could have lost my life that day,” she says.
A 2005 Illinois law requires hospitals to report to the state when employees or patients are seriously injured by violence. But more than 10 years after the law passed, WGN has found, it’s still not happening.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health says the state doesn’t yet have the technology it needs to implement a data reporting system.
“The funding is available, but like many specially designed reporting systems, an IT vendor is needed,” she said. “We don’t have an ETA on a contract right now. The procurement process is challenging.”
So WGN checked police reports. They don’t show what’s really happening, either. In the last five years some of the largest hospitals in Chicago have only called police to report violence against nurses a handful of times.
But the nurses we spoke to say it’s happening every week, sometimes every day – especially when they are short staffed, like late at night.
After a nurse was sexually assaulted at the University of Chicago Medical Center, nurses there decided they wanted to know how frequently it was happening. So they handed out a survey through the union.
“It had astonishing numbers. We were surprised to see that our nurses were being assaulted as much as they were giving us feedback about,” says Dawn Peckler, an operating room nurse at the University of Chicago.
About a third of the nurses who filled out the survey said they had been hit or kicked on the job. Four percent reported being sexually assaulted.
But the hospital’s OSHA logs don’t show a fraction of those incidents. According to police records, in the last five years, the hospital has only called 911 once to report violence against a nurse.
Through a spokesperson, the University of Chicago Medical Center provided this statement.
The hospital says it takes workplace violence very seriously and has always been committed to safety. It formed a committee earlier this year to further address the issue and partners with law enforcement when appropriate.
“The University of Chicago Medical Center regrets that WGN has decided to use a flawed survey reportedly conducted by the National Nurses United union,” the statement reads.
The hospital says the survey conducted by the nurses’ union was informal and unscientific, and only a fraction of the hospital’s nurses even responded.
The Union admits the survey was informal, but says the responses received are representative of everything they have ever heard anecdotally.
“The administrative levels do not want to acknowledge any kind of negative events because it’s an image factor for them,” Peckler says.
The President and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association says hospitals take the safety of their nurses very seriously, and they are prepared to start reporting data to the state when the time comes.
“We want to make sure that we have initiatives in place not only to preserve the safety of the environment but to de-escalate situations before they become violent,” says A.J. Wilhelmi, President and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.
Wilhelmi says hospitals try to make sure they have a protocol in place internally for employees to report on incidents and violence.
But Hamilton says when her attacker returned to Jackson Park for treatment, she was still expected to care for him.
“He followed me all around the unit,” she says. “Taunting me,” she remembers. “They could have moved me somewhere else you know. To another unit. They could have let me go home.”
A Presence Health spokesperson provided WGN-TV with the following statement:
"In response to the national trend of hospital violence, in 2016 Presence Health engaged a nationally recognized consulting firm that conducted a system-wide assessment related to workplace violence. From findings provided by the research data and site assessments, Presence Health recently implemented a comprehensive training for all hospital teams to help identify and effectively diffuse violence before it occurs. The new trainings were recently introduced in a video message to all 17,000 Presence Health Associates by Presence Health President and CEO Michael Englehart. Other safety and security protocol enhancements have also been introduced to support our teams and maintain patient safety as well, including a violence reporting screen and new workplace violence prevention plan. Additionally, related to this past summer’s incident a full investigation in cooperation with the Illinois Department of Corrections was conducted leading to improvements to assure the safest environment possible for Presence Health associates, physicians and patients. Presence Health continues to work closely with the IDOC to effectively coordinate the care of patients originating from the state corrections system."