Hospital workers report feeling unsafe on the job.
Some states are now offering hospitals independent police forces to increase staff protection. But workers wonder if their safety will come at the cost of their patients.
A new Georgia law allows healthcare facilities to establish independent police forces. The move is part of an attempt to protect hospital workers from violence, which has been steadily growing since 2011, and joins other states who have legalized or are working to legalize similar protections.
Violence against hospital workers rose during the pandemic, too, and many staff express feeling or having felt unsafe on the job. While some say there is a need for more protection in their workplace, not everyone agrees on what that protection should look like—and if it should look like police trailing in on rounds.
Kristen Fuller, MD, MDLinx board member and former emergency care doctor, says she dealt with many angry patients in the ER during the pandemic. She adds that she does not consider hospitals safe places for workers.
“There have been quite a few nights that I have been nervous walking to my car after shift,” says Fuller. “I remember one particular incident when I was in residency and doing my rotation at the pediatric hospital. A young boy in a gang shot his brother, who was in a rival gang, and he was in critical condition in the trauma ICU. There was a large gang presence at the hospital, and it definitely made me think about my safety.”
Other patients who express verbal threats are often under the influence of drugs or have histories of domestic violence disputes, she adds. Having a police presence available can be helpful in these situations, even if someone is simply available to walk a staff member to their car after work, she says.
“I am not sure if this is the best solution, but this is one solution,” adds Fuller. “This is a tricky topic, almost like gun laws, and has multiple layers involved.”
Instead of or in addition to a police presence, hospitals could add security elements like metal detectors and increased camera surveillance, she says.
Problems with police presence
Despite the necessity of healthcare worker protection, some doctors worry that stationing police in hospitals will negatively affect patients and patient-doctor relationships.
Christine Kingsley, APRN, an advanced practice registered nurse and wellness director of the Lung Institute, says she worries that adding hospital police forces will make it more “difficult for us to get our patients’ trust.”
“Having the police force in a healthcare facility is like saying to patients that ‘law enforcement is here because we don’t trust you and we don’t feel safe around you,’” Kingsley adds. “Any healthcare practitioner knows that trust, in this setting, should be a two-way street.”
She says other problems with police biases and racial profiling could undermine medical practices and put patients at risk.
As healthcare professionals, we serve a diverse pool of patients,” says Kingsley. “We serve people coming from different backgrounds, races, gender, and medical history. I am personally worried about the police force’s actions against people from certain races because we all know how some law enforcement officials react to African Americans–and this is outside the hospital setting.”
These worries are not baseless. A 2020 ProPublica investigation found that an independent police force at Cleveland Clinic’s medical zone disproportionately charged and cited Black people, despite the majority of the clinic’s worker, patient, and visitor population being White.
Fuller, too, expresses the worry that police could have a negative impact on patients. She says that despite the intent of keeping hospital workers safe, their presence could put some patients in danger.
“Patients may feel threatened or unsafe, especially patients in communities where police are not ethical,” Fuller says. “In the end, the goal is to provide more safety to not only healthcare workers but patients as well and it is important for patients to feel safe walking into a hospital or medical clinic to receive care.”
What this means for you
Hospital workers discuss the potential need for police protection in healthcare settings while also wondering if this could be harmful to patients in different race groups.