My hospital became a crime scene

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published September 1, 2022

Key Takeaways

A dark, eerie feeling set over me as I arrived for my night shift at a children’s hospital and saw the yellow caution tape, news crew vans, and police cars.

It was a crime scene. As I walked into the ER, one of my coworkers told me that there was a shooting a block away from the hospital involving two young brothers; one deceased and the other in critical condition, both under 12 years old. They were in rival gangs and opened fire on each other.

As I made my hospital rounds that night, each patient room I entered had the TV on with this news blaring. And of course, parents were asking if the critical patient was in this hospital. I said I was unsure of the specific details, keeping to myself that I knew who was treating the young boy in the trauma ICU.

"I never thought in my life that we’d encounter active hospital shootings regularly within only a handful of years."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Gun violence is a disease that’s become a malignant part of our society. It’s now infiltrated our hospitals and clinics—and some shooters are targeting physicians.

The tragic statistics

Gun violence in hospitals is, sadly, not new. There have been quite a few cases of gun violence at medical institutions in recent years.

  • An article in the Annals of Emergency Medicine revealed there were more than 150 hospital-related shootings between 2000 and 2011.[]

  • In 2015, an armed man shot and killed a cardiac surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

  • In 2017, an angry physician committed a mass shooting at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, killing a doctor and wounding six others.

  • In 2018, a gunman killed an ER doctor, a pharmacist, and a police officer at Mercy Hospital in Chicago.

  • In 2022 a gunman opened fire and killed two physicians and two other individuals in an Oklahoma medical building because he felt the physicians had caused him pain from recent back surgery.

While the circumstances of hospital shootings may differ, it’s evident that as physicians, we’re vulnerable.

These acts of violence are infiltrating our workplace and putting healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients at risk. When the attacks involve firearms, they become more terrifying—and deadly.

Most physicians enter medicine to make a positive difference in the world. Most of us weren’t afraid to enter our workplace until recently. These tragedies leave most of us wondering if it could have just as easily been ourselves.

So, how do we combat the issues of gun violence in hospitals while protecting ourselves, our loved ones, and our patients?

Strategies to stop it

In a recent Lancet article, the authors outline several strategies to combat violence against healthcare workers, especially in the current COVID-19 pandemic climate.[] Their suggestions included:

  • Our government and legal system should take steps to help prevent and condemn violent attacks on physicians and our healthcare system.

  • Health professional societies worldwide need to come together and speak out against all types of harassment, discrimination, and violence against HCPs.

  • As some of this violence has been fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, steps should be taken to stop the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus, its origins, its treatments, and how it spreads. Concise, easy-to-understand information should be readily available to keep the public accurately informed. Governments and social media companies should also do their part to provide the facts.

Another way physicians can help combat this disease of gun violence is by doing more to care for our patients' emotional needs.

The power of compassion

When a patient’s upset, our instinct is to soothe them. So it’s perfectly normal—even compassionate—to reach out to a patient who is crying, to gently tell them not to cry, or say, “Everything will be fine.” But we’re often only making things worse, as we’re not validating their feelings but instead trying to end their pain.

"When our patients have emotional needs, it’s our job to make time for them and validate their feelings."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Some physicians worry that discussing such emotions can lead them down a rabbit hole and consume their scarce free time. However, it takes even more time when they don't address these emotions, as patients will continue to bring up their concerns.

Phrases we can say include:

  • "I see you're scared, and I can understand that."

  • "Whatever we find in the test results, I want you to know that I’ll do everything I can to help you through this."

  • "My whole team will be here to support you."

Patients often feel vulnerable expressing raw emotions—who likes to tell people they are scared? We can try to reduce this vulnerability by addressing the patient's emotion: "I can see that you are sad."

Then we can follow up by praising patients for what they have done during these difficult times: "Given all that you are going through, I'm impressed that you are still able to do this task." We must support patients by letting them know we’re there for them throughout the journey.

We want to help our patients during times of suffering, but we often don't know the right words when emotions begin escalating.

"Patients deserve physicians who address their emotional needs."

Kristen Fuller, MD

However, the question remains whether the medical profession will take such communication skills seriously enough to emphasize them in medical school, residency training, and licensure.

Hopefully, these interactions with our patients can tend to their emotional needs, and offer support to them and their families. In doing so, not only can we do better at our jobs; we can also help decrease the hate and violence sweeping through our hospitals.

Read Next: Real Talk: Working with mentally unstable patients

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