Under attack: Health care workers strive to improve safety amid increase in violence

Chris Buesing was attacked while on the job for Stormont Vail. He's used that experience to spark change in his workplace, and in state law.
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 10:36 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The people we trust with our health are facing a very real threat to their own: violence against health care workers continues to rise.

Federal data shows they are five times more likely to experience workplace violence than employees in all other industries.

Chris Buesing isn’t a doctor or nurse. He’s held managerial roles at Stormont Vail. In January 2017, at a meeting in a clinic, it didn’t matter what job he held.

“As I was walking down the hall, there was a person that had been sitting on a bench and he stood up, and he attacked me. He punched me in the jaw and drug me around the corner,” Bueing said. “The attack broke my jaw which led to two surgeries. The first one didn’t take properly, it didn’t set, so they rebroke it and wired me shut for a second time.”

Buesing missed two months of work, and spent two years recovering.

“I came to health care to try to help people that help other people, and through that, I never really expected to have to worry about my own safety,” he said.

The experience led Buesing to a new role as Stormont’s Director for Workers Compensation and Workplace Safety. He also chairs their workplace violence committee.

“After the incident happened, I definitely felt alone. I felt all by myself and people didn’t understand what was happening and what was going on,” he said.

Buesing quickly realized he wasn’t alone.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports injuries from violent attacks against medical professionals grew 63 percent from 2011 to 2018. Health care workers accounted for 73 percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries due to violence in 2018 - 76 percent in 2020.

Health care workers report incidents including physical attacks and verbal threats. On the extreme end, in June 2022, a person upset over continued pain walked into a Tulsa, Oklahoma hospital, shooting and killing a surgeon, another doctor, a receptionist and a patient.

In Kansas, a Kansas Hospital Association survey in Fall 2018 found 46.2 percent of the 109 hospitals responding had patients, visitors or others commit violence in the workplace over the course of a year. Among those, 21.3 percent saw violence one to three times a month; 12.7 percent report occurrences one to three times a week; and 6.6 percent see a violent act every day.

Buesing said Stormont averages three injury-causing workplace violence incidents a month, and 10 security calls each week.

The search for solutions led Buesing and health care workers from across Kansas to the Statehouse. At a January House Judiciary Committee hearing, they testified for a bill defining the crime of battery against a health care provider and increasing penalties for it.

“I share my story so that we can learn and make the changes that are needed,” Buesing told the committee.

“This is a crisis,” echoed Tammy Norhrop, RN, emergency department director of St. Joseph Hospital in Wichita. “We are in crisis and we are asking this body for help.”

While some lawmakers questioned if the measure would do anything to stop violence, health care workers responded that it was a step in the right direction.

“It says to health care workers you matter and you shouldn’t have to be afraid to report to duty and just do your job. Our staff is afraid to report for duty,” said Val Gleason, CEO of NMC Health in Newton.

Lawmakers folded the proposal into other legislation, and Buesing was there when the Governor signed it into law in early May.

“It was pretty emotional for me to see it and to be through all of this,” he said. “It’s not a solution, but it’s one of the pieces that’s going to help fix the puzzle and help protect health care workers more than we have in the past.”

Buesing admits the attack has changed him.

“I still at times see patients or families or visitors and fear for myself. I’ll see someone walking down the hall and will wonder do I need to protect myself?” he said.

But his new role gives him new perspective to channel those thoughts into improvements. In recent years, Stormont has doubled its security staff, added metal detectors and screeners in the Emergency Department, continually assesses what areas pose risks for attacks, and add notations to charts for patients with a history of aggressive behavior.

“The idea is to protect staff members so that they know there’s a potential for violence there, but also to help ensure they have the tools that they can take care of themselves, and also make sure that the patient is safe as well,” Buesing said.

In addition, Stormont has added resources and support groups, so no one else who’s been through what Buesing has ever feels alone.

“Health care workers, in the effort to take care of the patient, put themselves in harm’s way at times and so what we need to do is take extra steps to help protect them,” he said.

Buesing’s attacker had a criminal history that led to a 16-year prison sentence.

Buesing was named one of Ingram’s 2023 Heroes in Healthcare for his efforts on workplace violence issues.