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Seventeen attacks every day on frontline medics in Northern Ireland


A nurse was carrying out her duties when a patient punched her in the face. Picture posed

A nurse was carrying out her duties when a patient punched her in the face. Picture posed

Getty Images/iStockphoto

A nurse was carrying out her duties when a patient punched her in the face. Picture posed

Attacks on health service workers are on the rise across Northern Ireland, with more than 17 assaults reported every day.

Staff have been left with fractured bones after they were punched, kicked and manhandled by violent patients.

In the last year over 6,200 attacks on health care workers were recorded. However, staff and unions said the true figure is much higher because many more go unreported.

Patricia McKeown from the health workers' union Unison warned the situation was worsening.

She described some wards and A&E units as "powderkegs" as staff, already pushed to breaking point by cutbacks, are left to face the brunt of patients' anger.

The onslaught has led to calls for automatic jail sentences for thugs who attack health workers.

Some of the most shocking examples of violence include:

  • An auxiliary nurse suffered a damaged eye after she was kicked in the face by a violent patient;
  • A social worker was bitten and stabbed in the arm, face and head with a pen;
  • A worker was left faint and breathless after being kicked in the chest;
  • A female worker had part of her hair ripped out and was bitten, scratched and kicked;
  • A nurse suffered a fractured nose after being punched in the face.

Yesterday a paramedic suffered a cut lip after being attacked by a violent patient in Londonderry. A 23-year-old man was later arrested on suspicion of assault.

In the 12 months to last April a total of 6,091 physical attacks on staff were reported across the five health trusts.

A further 116 assaults took place against paramedics from the Ambulance Service.

Some 2,092 violent incidents were reported by the Belfast Trust - Northern Ireland's biggest health trust.

Former Health Minister Edwin Poots, now a member of the Assembly's justice committee, said prison terms should be considered for violent offenders.

"Mandatory sentencing for attacks on hospital staff is something that I think we could give consideration to," he said.

Mr Poots said there was no justification for the violence.

"People who are trying to help do not deserve to be hit, bitten, kicked, scratched or called vile names," he added.

"I witnessed, as someone who was in hospital with a relative and as Health Minister, where people behaved appallingly.

"I find it totally abhorrent and unacceptable, and there needs to be a zero tolerance attitude."

Patricia McKeown said cutbacks in the health service were leading to more attacks.

"We have unsafe staffing levels across the system, with an extraordinary amount of staff working by themselves," she said.

"One problem - while in no way an excuse - is that people are becoming intolerant of the length of time they have to wait for treatment."

Ms McKeown warned attacks were rising, adding: "It's getting worse because staff are coming under more pressure. Most of our hospitals, particularly those with A&Es, are powderkegs at the minute."

Around half of all attacks were against nursing staff.

Garrett Martin from the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland said the figures were unacceptably high.

"It is overwhelmingly nursing and midwifery who are the victims because these are staff working on the front line," he said.

"They are working closely with patients and families and often bear the brunt."

Backing calls for mandatory prison terms, Mr Martin said the courts needed to take tougher action.

"There is an onus on the judiciary to make sure that the perpetrators are dealt with severely," he said. "We haven't always seen that; indeed we have sometimes seen quite lenient sentences."

Ambulance Service staff are often on the front line.

In one case a paramedic was hit by a patient and had a dish of vomit thrown at him. Another reported being punched, kicked and having blood spat in his face.

John McPoland from the Ambulance Service said the impact of patient violence often went beyond the physical attack.

"It can take longer to get over the emotional scars than the physical injuries," he said.

The catalogue of viciousness across Trust areas

Belfast Trust: 2,092 reported assaults

Staff at Northern Ireland’s biggest health trust were punched, kicked and dragged by the hair by violent patients.

Over 2,000 assaults on staff were reported in the Belfast Trust area. In the majority of cases — some 1,629 incidents — nursing and midwifery staff were the victims.

Social services workers were attacked 541 times.

The attacks included a nursing auxiliary who was injured when a patient punched them.

Another staff member was carrying out duties when a patient punched and scratched their face.

In a third incident a confused patient assaulted various members of staff as they were trying to provide care.

A patient also tried to pull out a feeding tube, became aggressive and kicked a member of staff on the shoulder.

Northern Trust: 863 reported assaults

A social worker was bitten and repeatedly stabbed with a pen in the arm, face and head in one of the worst examples of violence.

In another case, a patient threw urine around a student nurse.

A third incident saw a patient try to stab a health care assistant twice with a knife.

Staff in the Northern Trust were attacked 863 times in one year, with many reporting they had been left cut, bruised and in pain.

An auxiliary nurse suffered damage to her eye after being kicked in the face by an angry patient.

In some cases the attacks were so violent that staff were left with fractured bones.

A nurse suffered a fractured nose after being punched on the face, while another was injured after trying to break up a fight between patients.

Southern Trust: 1,124 reported assaults

More than three attacks on staff in the Southern Trust area were reported every day.

One hospital patient who refused medication became abusive, kicking out at staff.

In another case a care worker was injured when a client she was assisting struck her with a clenched fist.

Another reported that a patient was agitated, aggressive and abusive for most of the day, at one stage lashing out with his hands.

Some 1,124 assaults were reported across the Southern Trust, which covers the south Tyrone, Armagh and Newry districts.

A disorientated patient who was being helped back to bed lashed out at a nurse and kicked a security porter.

And another staff member reported how a patient tried to bite them.

South Eastern Trust: 1,184 reported assaults

A violent patient ripped out a clump of hair in a horrific attack on a female member of staff.

The attacker then bit the victim’s shoulder, scratched her on the neck and chest and kicked both of her legs.

It was among almost 1,200 attacks on staff in the South Eastern Trust area, which covers mainly Co Down.

Among the litany of violence were two instances of sexual assault and three cases involving a weapon.

In one incident, a patient who was receiving an injection for a head wound suddenly became violent and spat in a health worker’s face.

An A&E patient also became verbally and physically aggressive, and tried to punch a staff nurse and paramedic.

And in another case a worker was being bitten on the arm as they tried to restrain a patient.

Western Trust: 828 reported assaults

An aggressive patient kicked a member of staff in the chest, causing them to become faint and breathless.

The attack was among more than 800 instances of violence against health workers in the Western Trust area. Nursing and midwifery staff were attacked almost 600 times, while social workers were victims on 177 occasions.

In one case a nurse helping a patient to put on their shoes was kicked on the head, and in another, a young person became unsettled and tried to leave, hitting out at staff, spitting and pulling hair.

A patient also lashed out at a worker who told them they could not smoke, striking them on their jaw. In another serious incident a patient suddenly pushed a nurse against the wall, grabbed her in a headlock and then struck her on the head.

Belfast Telegraph