Rockhampton Hospital’s emergency department is frequently the scene of attacks by drunken patients on doctors and nurses, says Dr Henk Sigle.
Rockhampton Hospital’s emergency department is frequently the scene of attacks by drunken patients on doctors and nurses, says Dr Henk Sigle. CHRIS ISON CI

Hospital staff sick of violent drunks

THEY spit, vomit, punch and kick. And Rockhampton’s emergency department staff have had their fill of them.

Dr Henk Sigle said yesterday doctors and nurses routinely dealt with about 15 violent drunks every weekend who dished out physical and verbal abuse to those who were trying to heal them.

He welcomed the prosecution last week in Rockhampton Magistrates Court of a woman who punched a nurse in the face and revealed the torment faced on a regular basis by medics on the city’s accident and emergency front line.

Dr Sigle, a senior medical officer at the emergency department, said the constant threat of alcohol-fuelled violence took its toll not just on staff, but on patients as well.

But although he and his colleagues say they are more likely than in the past to report acts of violence, emergency department staff were “very kind-hearted and forgiving” and that meant countless louts got away with unacceptable behaviour.

“Alcohol-fuelled aggression is a regular occurrence in our emergency department, but Friday and Saturday nights and Monday mornings are the worst,” he said.

“I estimate an average of 15 violent drunks come through every Friday and Saturday night when we face spitting, vomiting, verbal abuse, kicking and hitting.

“Drink plays a role not only in the injuries we are seeing, but also in the way people act towards doctors and nurses.”

He said staff had a hard enough job to do without having to put up with aggressive or other anti-social behaviours.

“It’s a heart-sinking moment when you get one of these aggressive cases, especially when you’re coming at the job from a caring point of view.”

Nurses union regional organiser Glenda Ross said she vividly remembered the day she “got a smack in the chops” when she was working on a ward.

“When it happens it comes so fast you can’t react quickly enough. It’s explosive and frightening,” she said.

Glenda said although Queensland Health had acted to combat violence, there was no easy way to manage aggressive behaviour.

“It’s been happening for a lot of years, but the degree of physical abuse is greater now.

“We understand some people get a little bit anxious about their loved ones, but to smack staff in the face is not acceptable.”

She said the case in Rockhampton Magistrates Court highlighted the dangers faced by medical teams.

Theresa Rose Williams, who said she struck out instinctively when a needle hurt her, was sentenced to two months in prison for assault.

Queensland Health said yesterday everyone had to take responsibility for their own behaviour and actions.

“Violence against our staff is simply not acceptable and being affected by alcohol is a cause, not an excuse.”

The health authority has spent $17 million in the last three years to support staff training and improve surveillance and lighting in hospitals.

And in 2008 the Queensland Government increased penalties for assault on health care workers to a maximum of three years for common assault and seven years for serious assault.

But nothing, so far, has stemmed the growing tide of violence towards doctors and nurses who have the misfortune of being on duty when drunken patients come in for treatment.

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