Bay State Addresses Nurse Safety, But Is It Enough?

John Commins, August 2, 2010

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick this summer signed into law a bill that stiffens criminal penalties for those who assault on-duty nurses and other healthcare providers.

The new law treats assaults on healthcare professionals doing their jobs as a separate crime with its own set of penalties—extending to healthcare providers the protections and enhancements that were already in the law for assaulted emergency medical technicians.

"This law gives us the tools to further protect the many healthcare professionals who work tirelessly to ensure the care of all Commonwealth residents," Patrick-flanked by nurses-said at a signing ceremony in his office.

Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Associationwhich lobbied heavily for the law said it validates nurses' concerns and will raise public awareness of about violence in the healthcare workplace. "Nurses are assaulted on the job to the same degree as police officers and prison guards," she said.

While Bay State nurses are cheering the new protection, they also say it's not enough. Kelly-Williams said two other MNA-sponsored bills that would address healthcare violence are opposed by the Massachusetts Hospital Association. One of the bills requires healthcare providers to have in place proactive policies and procedures to prevent workplace violence from occurring in the first place. The second bill calls for what MNA describes as "safe patient limits for nurses, as the lack of staff to adequately respond to patients and families concerns [that] is a major factor leading to these types of incidents." Translation: staffing ratios.

"We have been trying for over 10 years to get safe patient limits assigned to an RN at one time and that has been met with much opposition," Kelly-Williams said, adding that MHA has "fought us every step of the way."

Kelly-Williams said it's almost impossible to talk about other safety strategies—such as de-escalation—if nurses are already overworked and unable to recognize and address the behavior of patients in pain, or with substance abuse or mental health issues, and their anxious relatives and friends.

MHA issued a statement saying it is aware of the concerns of hospital safety and has long supported increased criminal penalties for those who assault healthcare workers. MHA said its member hospitals have "gone to great lengths to provide a variety of security and social services to maintain a level of safety in both the clinical setting and administrative offices. Such safeguards are designed to address the unique needs of every community. A 'one size fits all' approach simply doesn't work in dynamic hospital settings."

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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