More than 50,000 attacks on Northern Ireland healthcare staff in five years

More than 50,000 attacks on healthcare staff have been reported in the last five years.

The figures were released by the Department of Health as it launches a new framework to help tackle violence and aggression towards HSC staff.

Dr Eimhear Kearney, who has been an Emergency Medicine Consultant for five years says she has noticed an increase in frequency of verbal assaults and the level of violence staff are subjected to.

''We are seeing attacks on staff every day. They vary from verbal insults and do tip over into physical assault and violent aggression and that is now every day,'' she said.

Almira Barro has been an emergency department nurse for more than 20 years and has noticed an escalation in the assaults. She described how she intervened to help more junior staff and ended up being punched in the face by a patient.

''It's very stressful and puts a lot of pressure on everyone. Staff sickness increases and with the number of staff ever decreasing and more and more people needing our care, that is a huge added challenge,'' she said.

Dr Kearney says she thinks extra security and body worn cameras should be introduced to the emergency care setting to protect staff and maintain order.

''Just last week we had to call police to the department managing care and maintain safety in the department and that's happening on a weekly basis.

''Paramedics already wear body cameras on occasion and I think that will come into the emergency setting soon.''

Number of incidents per year where staff were subjected to physical abuse:

  • 2018/19 - 9,600

  • 2019/20 - 9,910

  • 2020/21 - 10,730

  • 2021/22 - 10,482

  • 2022/23 - 10,873

  • Total - 51,595

The new framework by DoH is entitled: ‘It’s not part of the job’ and has been produced by in partnership with health trusts and Trade Unions.

It aims to prevent, reduce and respond to violence and aggression in health and social care.

Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, Peter May said: “No one should have to face the threat of aggression or violence in the course of their job, least of all HSC staff who dedicate their lives to protecting and caring for patients.

“The figures released today are appalling. HSC staff work in highly pressured environments and incidents such as these make their jobs more difficult. Abusive behaviour causes mental and physical harm to staff, leading to time off work and less time with patients.” 

“HSC staff are empathetic and frequently express their understanding as to why some people behave in certain ways, sometimes that’s due to illness but often it’s just unacceptable behaviour which is not part of the job.

Officials say that the pressures of a health service under strain is adding to the frustration of patients and their relatives however any abuse is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

“We know that health and social care is under immense strain and this means people have to wait longer for care and treatment. I understand that this is frustrating, however reacting abusively in these situations is not acceptable. As the majority of people recognise, staff are doing their best in a system that is significantly under-resourced. They deserve our appreciation and respect,” said Mr May.

The new Violence and Aggression framework published today outlines the HSC’s commitment to ensuring the prevention, reduction and management of violence and aggression towards staff. It has also been designed to ensure that the right structures, policies and support are in place to enable staff to work safely.

Mr May continued: “The framework acknowledges that it is not possible to fully eliminate incidents of inappropriate behaviour when providing health services, as staff are required to treat and care for a wide range of people in challenging circumstances.

“Nonetheless, employers have a duty to provide a safe, secure environment and support for staff and others. Trusts are therefore required to undertake risk assessments as applicable and when incidents do occur, it is vital that they are dealt with appropriately and that staff are supported. The framework makes clear that trusts will also be expected to ensure incidents are reviewed and lessons learnt to reduce the risk of future occurrences.”

The framework is published on the Department of Health website.

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