Medical groups back bill to enhance health care worker safety

Amid an increase in social media harassment and physical violence in hospitals and medical offices, a number of physician groups are calling for federal action that would provide new legal protections for health care workers and increase the penalties for those who threaten or commit harm against them.

When patients and families have health concerns, they turn to health care workers for care, guidance, and hope. These professionals are a crucial part of our health care system and society, serving as the frontline defense for keeping our communities healthy and safe,” said a joint statement by Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), and David J. Skorton, MD, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

“Yet violence against health care workers is surging and inflammatory rhetoric has become commonplace and intense,” they said. “Such words and actions are irresponsible and dangerous and compromise the ability of health professionals to provide much-needed care to patients and communities.”

NAM and AAMC called for passage of the federal Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act, introduced in June by Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, and Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD, R-Indiana. The bill is modeled after current protections for aircraft and airport workers, such as flight crews and attendants, and would provide legal penalties for individuals who knowingly and intentionally assault or intimidate hospital employees.

NAM and AAMC cited surveys that found 44% of nurses reported being subject to physical violence and 68% reported verbal abuse, and 23% of physicians reported being personally attacked on social media. In June, a gunman targeted his surgeon he blamed for continuing pain, and the shooter killed another physician, a receptionist, and a visitor before turning the gun on himself at a Tulsa medical office.

Children’s hospitals that provide evidence-based gender-affirming care have become targets of inflammatory rhetoric and threats, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the Children’s Hospital Association. The groups sent a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to investigate threats against physicians, hospitals, and families of children.

“Individuals in all workplaces have the right to a safe environment, out of harm’s way and free of intimidation or reprisal,” AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., MD, said in a joint statement with the other organizations. “As physicians, we condemn groups that promote hate-motivated intolerance and toxic misinformation that can lead to grave real-world violence and extremism and jeopardize patients' health outcomes.”

AMA and its members will work with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to develop and implement strategies that protect physicians and other health care workers from senseless acts of violence, abuse and intimidation, Resneck said.

This summer, Boston Children’s Hospital made national news for disclosing threats and harassment due to online misinformation that the hospital performed gender-affirming surgeries on young children. Those threats prompted comments by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts and creation of a tip line to report the threats.