Nurses have consistently suffered the slings and arrows of their professional service to society. As frontline healthcare workers, nurses are frequently the targets of belligerent (and often violent) patients and families, not to mention irate physicians and fellow nurses intent on bullying their nurse brethren.

If the nursing profession was represented by a metaphorical human body, that body would be covered with multiple bruises, lacerations and scars.

Visible and invisible wounds

A recent article by The Washington Post elucidates that nursing is indeed one of the most dangerous professions in the United States. From a nurse being stabbed multiple times by an angry patient to a nurse being held hostage and sexually assaulted by an improperly restrained inmate receiving medical care, stories abound of nurses experiencing a variety of physical and psychological insults while performing their professional duties.

In a 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated unequivocally that healthcare workers suffer five to 12 times more nonfatal workplace injuries related to violence than all others in the American workforce.

The wounds experienced on the job by nurses in the United States are not just those that are visible to the naked eye. When nurse Alex Wubbels was assaulted and unlawfully detained by Salt Lake City police while dutifully protecting the rights of an unconscious patient, she was manhandled and stuffed into a police cruiser. What emotional and psychological scars has Wubbels suffered in the aftermath of this egregious event?

With the FBI now being asked to join the investigation, the nursing world is waiting to see how aggressively the authorities will continue to pursue what some see as a open-and-close case of police brutality, overreach and abuse of authority. The veracity of a legal case against the Salt Lake City Police Department appears airtight.

Taking steps

If the American healthcare environment is more violent than any other workplace in the country, what steps can be taken to protect nurses and other healthcare professionals from unwarranted harm? There are no easy answers, but there is certainly a need for concerted effort by multiple parties in order to stem the tide of what could be characterized as an epidemic.

The rate of occupational injury for nurses needs to be simultaneously addressed. Back and neck injuries are rampant among nurses who are pushed beyond the limits of their physical capabilities. Whether from violence or not, elevated rates of on-the-job injury are categorically unacceptable.

One significant step to be taken around the country is a thorough review of memoranda of understanding between hospitals and local police departments. Certain legal judgments — from both the Supreme Court and lower courts provide clear guidance on patients' rights and the responsibility of healthcare providers and facilities to protect those rights.

In the case of Wubbels and the Salt Lake City police, the nurse was herself fully versed in the details of an agreement between the hospital and local police, but the officer in question ignored the printed policy presented to him by Wubbels.

Nurses can take charge

Nurses and their leaders must take a courageous and proactive stand regarding the issue of the widespread workplace violence facing the nursing profession. Further steps must be specific to individual facilities, thus administrators can be held accountable by nurse employees for the creation and enforcement of sensible and prudent reforms and protections.

If nurses fail to take the reins of this issue, the potential remains for this disconcerting situation to be swept under the proverbial rug. Nurses everywhere must sit up, take notice and make a stand for the safety of every individual serving the public within the nursing profession and the larger healthcare industry.