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When Steve Edwards was approached by an anti-COVID-19 vaccine agitator in the parking lot on Tuesday, the President and CEO of CoxHealth received a barrage of support from people who were upset to see Edwards harassed.
And while Edwards appreciated the congratulations, he felt that the attention was out of place.
Tuesday morning’s interaction certainly caused Edwards’ heart rate to spike, but he said doctors and nurses at CoxHealth – and across the country – face the possibility of real violence on a daily basis.
Edwards said the number of workplace violence against nurses has increased in recent years, and CoxHealth has taken a number of steps to address the problem – including admitting dogs to the emergency room.
Edwards shared a link on his Twitter account this week to a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine article in which 82 percent of emergency room nurses said they had been attacked in the past year.
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In an interview this week, Edwards said the situation has worsened since then.
At CoxHealth, there were 4,058 violent incidents in the workplace in 2020. That is 3,248 in 2018.
Edwards stated that the vast majority of assaults on healthcare workers are perpetrated by patients – many of whom are grappling with a mental or addiction-related crisis that causes them to act erratically.
“That makes it really difficult, especially when you consider that about 80 percent of healthcare workers are women,” said Edwards.
Edwards added that the “pressure and stress” of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely partly responsible for the increase in violent incidents in hospitals over the past year.
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At CoxHealth, Edwards said numerous steps have been taken to keep staff safe.
First and foremost, Edwards said the hospital system has placed an emphasis on de-escalation training to help staff reassure people before violence breaks out.
There are also three security guards stationed in the emergency room at Cox South Hospital to deter violence and intervene if something goes wrong.
In addition, Edwards said CoxHealth installed “panic buttons” on the name tags of employees working in higher-risk areas of the hospital. If employees feel they are in a dangerous situation, they can press the button and their colleagues will be notified so that they can intervene.
In a strategy unique to the region, CoxHealth recently deployed two highly trained German Shepherds – Hugo and Ackley – to support public safety in the hospital.
Edwards said the benefits of dogs are twofold. First of all, they act as a kind of therapy dog and calm many people just by their presence. Second, he said the dogs were trained to defend staff and patients when necessary.
“People kind of understand that a dog doesn’t shy away from a knife or weapon where a person could,” Edwards said.
The dogs have been hospitalized for at least the last six months, and Edwards said the early return had been positive, with a noticeable reduction in the number of restraints.
“You have a stronger presence,” said Edwards.