Thursday, December 11, 2014

More On Violence And Aggression In Minnesota Hospitals

There was a recent incident (see link within that article) that occurred in a Minnesota hospital a few weeks ago that resulted in serious injuries to nursing staff.  There are various sites on the Internet where you can view the videotapes that were obtained from the hospital's security cameras.   It shows an out of control man chasing and striking nursing staff with a metal bar or pipe, in some cases repeatedly.  The patient in this case was eventually apprehended outside of the hospital and died suddenly after he was tasered, taken to the ground, and handcuffed.   Preliminary information suggested that the patient involved in this situation was probably experiencing an acute change in his conscious state because it was a total departure from his personality and he had no previous episodes of aggression or violence.  Nursing staff sustained serious injuries including a pneumothorax.  Autopsy results have not been released at this time.

Many people were shocked by this activity and yet is is a fairly common occurrence.  People may expect this kind of agitated and aggressive behavior to occur only on psychiatric units, but the reality there is that is happens only on a few psychiatric units.  Most psychiatric units are managed to limit the admission of patients with a high potential for violence.  It happens on medical-surgical units for a number of reasons and the effects are more dangerous at times because of the availability of objects that can be used as weapons.  I have seen stands used for hanging intravenous solutions being swung in a wide circle through an intensive care unit.  These stands have heavy bases that can inflict serious injuries and destroy a lot of equipment in an ICU.  There are many possible reasons for this kind of aggressive behavior ranging from delirium and psychosis on one end of the spectrum to antisocial behavior and wanting to intimidate medical staff on the other.  Although it seems incongruent with a controlled hospital environment, many families have an experience with a family member who suddenly loses control.  The proscription on aggression and violence and the moral interpretation of this behavior often makes it difficult for families to comprehend what is happening.  Families and medical professionals alike often lack the vocabulary for describing this behavior and can just lump it together as "bad" behavior.

I saw the preliminary description of this incident and the video clips and decided not to comment on it until after the results of the autopsy and investigation were known.  The idea that  this problem would be approached by making this behavior illegal made me change my mind for a couple of reasons.  First, there is a very high probability that this behavior was precipitated by a medical problem that led to a change in consciousness to the point that this individual had no control over his behavior.  Anyone who has been delirious has experienced this at one point or another.  In my own family one of the male relatives who was a well driller was apparently "blown up" in a well one day and the resulting brain injury led to permanent and extreme changes in his behavior.  From that day on he was extremely aggressive and the aggression was directed toward property.  He continuously overturned furniture and smashed dishes until the entire house was trashed.  In those days before any care or containment was available, the expectation was that the family would care for him and they did until he died.  The home environment was constantly disrupted by rage attacks until that day.  In my capacity as an inpatient psychiatrist, I would routinely see people brought to the hospital after they suddenly became aggressive at home.  When their relatives arrived they were always shocked to find that the patient had been admitted to a psychiatric unit.

My second reason for concern is the involvement of politicians in what is a misunderstood medical problem.   An acute medical problem causing aggressive behavior in not a criminal act - it is a medical problem.  Attempting to incarcerate or fine a person for aggression that occurs in that circumstance does not make any sense at all.  It may be a way to secure political capital from a special interest groups, but criminalizing a medical problem is not a reasonable approach.  Even suggesting that this is something that should be debated in a court of law is questionable.  I base that on the known track record of the not-guilty-by-reason-of-mental-illness defense.  It is widely known that there is a low probability of that defense succeeding.  It is also widely known that people who have committed criminal acts and who clearly have severe mental illness  are typically convicted.  All it usually takes is a expert testimony suggesting that despite any mental illness diagnosis, the defendant appeared to be taking planned steps to achieve a goal.  In the case of aggression those steps would involve assaultive behavior and destruction of property rather than random activity.  I can say that in every case of aggressive behavior that I have witnessed in a hospital, even in cases where the patient had no subsequent recall of the incident that their behavior appeared to be planned and the assaults were directed.

On the non-medical side of the spectrum, there are people whose conscious state is not altered at all and they have directed violence as part of their personality structure.  Threatening and assaulting people are a way of life.  They frequently have criminal backgrounds or an arrest record.  They often give a history of fighting and may have harmed someone when they were defenseless or felt no remorse if their aggressive behavior resulted in injury or disability.  In my experience the majority of these persons can control themselves in medical settings with a few exceptions.  Any drug or alcohol intoxication state makes them more unpredictable.  Seeking prescriptions for controlled substances like opiates or stimulants can also create confrontations if they don't get the prescription that they are seeking.  There may be a question about whether any special legislature penalizing what is essentially criminal assaultive behavior would be useful.  My guess is that it would not for the same reason that civil commitments fail to work - the laws are not utilized.  Hospital administrators and courts tend to ignore aggression toward medical and nursing staff from patients who are willfully directing violence toward them as a product of their usual conscious state.  Administrators always explained it to me as an occupational hazard, especially on the part of the nursing staff.  That casual attitude often leads to inadequate safeguards at every step.  There should be a zero tolerance attitude for personality disordered violence and that should include prosecutions for assault.

The key to protecting medical and surgical staff and their patients from aggression associated with acute changes in consciousness is to have a heightened level of awareness.   The patient's history prior to admission is critical.  Prompt recognition of delirium from many causes and acute drug and alcohol intoxication and withdrawal states is necessary.  Adequate staffing is critical.  There needs to be a definite team approach, all of the staff on the unit need to be aware of the potential for violence, and the priority needs to be on protecting the nursing staff delivering direct care to the patient.  Medical staff and nursing have to be on the same page and there can be no factors present that lead to split treatment.  Enlightened administrators may be helpful in preventing that dynamic, but in my experience I have not found any.

One of the common problems is that staffing on some of these cases involves 1:1 observation preferably by a trained psychiatric technician or nursing assistant who knows how to help patients de-escalate.   Just having a reassuring person in the room can often have the same effect.  There are protocols that address the physical environment to reduce the likelihood of post operative delirium.  Where necessary it is useful to have experienced staff treat acute agitation in hospital settings with medications.  Some large hospitals have psychiatric consultation 24/7 to address the problem and in some cases where the patient is medically stable transfer them to a more secure psychiatric environment for assessment and treatment.  Medical and nursing staff need to be in close contact 24/7 in order to make rapid adjustments in the treatment plan.

Making the aggressive behavior associated with explainable medical problems a crime is the wrong approach.

When I see legislators talking about what medical professionals do or do not know about containing violence and aggression my typical response is to cringe.  I put it on the long list of all of the other things that legislators think they needed to train physicians in - like how to prescribe opiates (in the year 2000) and then how not to prescribe too many opiates (in the year 2010).  There are plenty of people who come out of training who known how to assess and treat aggression.

They are called psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA            


  1. Once again Dr. Dawson is focused on the realities of unprovoked violence in the hospital and the correct thing is to staff for the possibility or potential threats to avert staff assault. It is a well known fact that 63% if all mental health staff will be assaulted at some point in their career and much of it is unprovoked although some health care providers might insinuate that it is the fault of the mental health provider. Excellent article for mental health professionals to read. Sharon Particka RNC

    1. Thanks Sharon,

      You bring up an excellent point on the issue of provoked and unprovoked violence. The idea in many ways has always been curious to me. I have witnessed thousands of nursing interactions with agitated, threatening and aggressive patients and there was no question that the patient's safety was the primary concern. I have been present when a staff person was assaulted unexpectedly and was not even interacting with the aggressive patient. I think there is a human tendency to look for reasons and the first decision point in aggression for many people is "Did he or she provoke (deserve) being the object of aggression?" That is a fairly pedestrian bias to bring into an inpatient psych unit inhabited by patints who think that everyone is trying to kill them.

      The analysis needs to take that into account as well as the fact that the team on that unit has to be an actual team. They need to be focused on violence prevention long before it happens. They need to start the shift with an explicit priority that nobody gets hurt. They need to be appropriately trained in deescalation techniques. The training also needs to include attending to the relationships among staff members and the elimination of staff splitting. I have observed over the years that the staff person who is the least in favor is often the victim of violence and that also leads to an observation that they may have done something to provoke the attack.

      In today's world the interpersonal dimension of being a team member is generally overlooked. Administrators often worsen the problem by trying to blame someone for the problem (eg. the patient was not medicated fast enough or enough medications were not used). Administrators and in this case politicians also implicitly blame everyone by suggesting they need additional "training" often by outside consultants with considerably less experience than the team with the supposed problem.

      There is probably no better resource than nursing staff who have been coming to work every day for years and who have seen just about every from of inpatient aggression that there is. I know that when I was working in inpatient settings there were days that my anxiety levels were through the roof because we were dealing with problems that there did not seem to be any solutions for and we were literally looking for a break. In some cases that took a lot of creativity.