News National The violent, traumatic, reality of our hospitals

The violent, traumatic, reality of our hospitals

Doctors in hospital emergency department
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Alcohol-fuelled attacks on doctors and nurses by intoxicated patients are now a daily occurrence in Australian hospitals, say emergency department workers.

Doctors report being knocked unconscious by drunk patients and pregnant nurses have been physically threatened, with staff saying that spitting, punching and kicking are all “common” occurrences.

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Drunk patients wreak havoc in hospitals

A startling 93 per cent of Australian emergency department (ED) staff have been physically assaulted or threatened by drunk patients, according to a new study by the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine. Ninety-eight per cent have been verbally abused.

Doctors say a culture of binge-drinking is resulting in a steady stream of violent or close-to-unconscious intoxicated Australians flooding hospitals, something they didn’t see decades ago.

Sydney St Vincent’s Public Hospital doctor Professor Gordian Fulde is the longest-serving emergency department director in the nation, running what he says is the most “alcohol besieged” department in Australia.

Doctor Gordian Fulde in the emergency department of Sydney's St Vincent Hospital.
St Vincent’s Hospital emergency director Professor Gordian Fulde. Photo: AAP

“Decades ago, nobody would punch a nurse, nobody would punch a lady doctor or whatever,” Dr Fulde says.

“Now it’s daily. People just come in and they’re just totally out of control.

“Now we have younger people who are drunk and they don’t have any real inhibition to punch, to swear and to be absolutely horrible.

“Of course we’ve been punched, of course the security people get hit and there’s blood and things like that.”

Submissions from doctors and nurses around the country to the Alcohol Harm in Emergency Departments (AHED) Project read like horror stories.

“I have been verbally threatened and physically assaulted – pushed, punched, spat on and bitten. I have been threatened in our hospital car park,” one female nurse wrote.

“I was assaulted and knocked unconscious by an intoxicated patient. The patient was arrested in the ED, and when asked why he hit the doctor his reply was ‘because no-one bought me a *bleep* [f***ing] sandwich,” one male doctor wrote.

Melbourne St Vincent’s Hospital emergency department doctor Sandra Neate has worked in the ED for three decades, and says incidents of aggression are “extremely traumatic”.

“They don’t have to be of a hugely substantial nature, even if someone kicks you or scratches you or spits at you, it’s enough to certainly have a profound affect on you,” Dr Neate says.

“The drinking culture in the community seems to have changed.”

“The amount that’s consumed, we commonly see people with blood alcohols of 0.3, six to eight times the legal limit, in the department.”

Alcohol-fuelled violence in hospitals

Dr Fulde says drunk and abusive patients are a drain on the resources of medical staff and scare other people in emergency departments.

The report found one instance where a man having a heart attack didn’t say anything for 40 minutes because medical staff were dealing with an intoxicated patient.

“The business of an emergency department is mostly patients who have got chest pain, abdominal pain; obviously there are a lot of older patients, patients with cancer, stuff like that,” Dr Fulde says.

“These people really have never seen anything like what comes in on a Friday or Saturday night.”

“I just think in Australian culture, you don’t have to be inside an emergency department to see nasty, intoxicated patients. Unfortunately it is considered part of what happens, and that’s wrong.”

Dr Neate agrees there needs to be a change in Australian culture, calling for reform to alcohol advertising and licensing laws.

In the meantime, doctors and nurses around the country will continue to try to deal with the escalating alcohol-fuelled violence in hospitals the best way they can.

“Sometimes you hope it may have an effect if you say to people ‘look your drinking has brought you into the emergency department, you were unconscious, your life was at risk, have a think about it’,” Dr Neate says.

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