Abuse of health-care workers on the rise

Nurses bear brunt of ugly behaviour from patients and their families

SEVERAL times a day, every day, a health-care worker at a public hospital here is scolded, abused with vulgarities, or even physically threatened by a patient, his family or friends.

Although hospitals do not track every incident, only the more uncontrolled and violent ones, they told The Straits Times they are seeing more cases of abuse.

"SGH (Singapore General Hospital) has almost one million patient encounters a year," said Ms Isabel Yong, who is in charge of service quality at the hospital. "And we have seen an increasing trend in the number of demanding or abusive patients or next of kin."

Although other health-care staff experience their share of demanding patients, nurses often bear the brunt of ugly behaviour.

National University Hospital (NUH) staff nurse Norazlina Hassan said that when patients or their families use vulgarities and rude gestures, it could reduce a nurse to tears and affect her work for the rest of the shift.

Staff at hospitals The Straits Times spoke to related various incidents of patients and visitors getting abusive.

And sometimes it does not take much to set them off.

Patients who ask to see a doctor sometimes get impatient and vent their anger on the nurses.

Some get upset over not getting the food they want. Others treat nurses as their maids.

Visitors, meanwhile, vent their frustrations when told visiting hours are over, or when they feel their relatives are not getting treated as well as they should be.

There have also been cases of hospital and polyclinic staff being slapped or punched.

Most hospitals train their staff on how to deal with such people. They also learn from experience.

NUH staff nurse Jonelyn Tanalgo said that when she thinks a patient will be aggressive, she would get a colleague to accompany her. They are less likely to get violent when there is more than one person around, she explained.

A spokesman for Changi General Hospital said it has even installed "panic buttons" at its work stations so staff can call for security should they have problems.

When all else fails, or when the behaviour gets violent or too abusive, police reports are made.

Some of the more serious cases end up in court, where people have been fined and even jailed for such abuse. An NUH spokesman said a patient's mother slapped a female member of staff whom she thought was flirting with her husband when, in fact, she was merely updating on his child's illness. The woman was taken to court and found guilty.

But often, the staff involved do not want to escalate the matter.

Ms Norazlina takes it all in her stride because, she said, they generally get more compliments than complaints.

A Health Ministry spokesman said it does not condone abusive behaviour towards health-care workers. She said: "While it is understandable that patients and their families may face stress and anxiety, our health-care staff are doing their best to provide the best care possible, and should be treated with respect."

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