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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Insults. Cocks. Scratches. Smashed medical equipment.

As a Spectrum Health nurse, Bobbi Jo Whitefield knows the hospital can be a tense environment for patients and families alike. But over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, she and her colleagues have felt firsthand an increase in violence and harassment against frontline healthcare workers.

It’s occasionally left them shaken, and emotionally and physically exhausted.

“I’ve had urine thrown at me, food thrown at me, vomit thrown at me,” said Whitefield, who attributes the behavior to patients suffering from a mental health crisis as well as stress caused by the pandemic.

Over the past two years, she’s been verbally abused, with patients or family members saying she’s “dumb” and a “fake nurse.” She and her colleagues have seen windows smashed, medical equipment destroyed, and staff struck. Once, a patient’s family member threatened to kill her.

That threat occurred after she told the family member about COVID-19 restrictions, limiting visitors to one adult per-patient. The family member responded with an ultimatum. They told Whitefield that if they couldn’t visit their daughter, and if their daughter dies, they would “hunt me down and kill me,” she said.

Violence and harassment against healthcare workers has skyrocketed at Spectrum hospitals throughout West Michigan, according to data provided by the health system. It’s a trend that’s also been felt at other hospitals across the state.

Healthcare workers at 10 Spectrum hospitals called security 564 times in 2020 to report being harmed or harassed by a patient or visitor, up 57 percent from 2019, according to data provided by Spectrum.

The number of calls fell to 465 last year, but remain well above pre-pandemic levels, data show. Last year’s total excludes 197 calls for help at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, which reported the stat for the first time in 2021.

A multitude of factors is driving the increase in reports of violence and harassment, officials say.

In addition to mental health challenges, the pandemic has brought a record number of patients to hospitals, creating longer emergency department wait times and other stressors that touch patients and families.

Calls for help range across Spectrum’s network of hospitals.

At Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Spectrum’s largest hospital, healthcare workers called security 335 times in 2020 to report violence or harassment, up from 223 in 2019. While security calls at Butterworth dropped to 280 in 2021, they remain above pre-pandemic levels.

At Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids, there were 75 security calls in 2019. That jumped to 114 in 2020. Last year, workers called for hep 96 times.

Spectrum’s regional hospitals in Greenville, Ludington, Big Rapids, Reed City, Hastings and Zeeland reported increased calls for help too.

“Society was just angry,” said Whitfield, who became so exhausted with the poor treatment that she transferred to a different department last year that provides outpatient care for individuals with heart problems.

“They feel like they can say and do whatever they want, no matter if it’s at the cost of somebody’s safety, their mental health, physical health, anything like that.”

Spectrum administrators are trying to reverse the trend.

The health system has launched an advertising and social media campaign to remind visitors and patients to follow the rules, and that healthcare workers deserve to be treated with respect. Flyers given to hospital visitors carry the same messaging.

The idea is to foster a more supportive environment for healthcare workers at a time when hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages and pandemic burnout has caused some frontline workers to quit.

Spectrum’s website, for instance, lists 2,100 openings for full-time or part-time employees. About 900 of those openings are in the areas of nursing or nursing support.

Filling those openings is made more difficult when nurses face an onslaught of threats and harassment, said Sgt. Angela Harris, a security police officer at Spectrum.

“It creates a very hard place for them to want to do their job and want to be the best nurse they can for some people if that patient rewards their best efforts with punching them in the face,” she said.

To help solve the problem, Spectrum is rolling out workplace violence prevention and de-escalation training for all employees starting next week. And in October, it began providing each nurse with a device they can use to alert security if they feel threatened or unsafe.

Harris said she and her colleagues receive alerts for help “every day.”

One of the most common incidents are patients who are experiencing a mental health crisis, Harris said. Some of those patients are not permitted to leave the hospital because they are considered a danger to themselves. But occasionally, those patients attempt to flee, and staff often end up harmed or assaulted when they try to intervene.

Security incidents are also common when families upset with COVID-19 visitor restrictions threaten hospital staff.

“Patients striking staff or threatening to strike staff are common-place, everyday occurrences,” said Harris, who noted that Spectrum staff now feel more comfortable reporting incidents due to a workplace violence initiative.

While healthcare workers understand and empathize with patients and families who are upset with visitor restrictions, they’re asking the public for patience and respect.

“We’re human too,” said Allie Cull, who has worked as a nurse at Spectrum for two years. “We’re here to help your loved ones and you, and we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

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