Abusive patients may be banned or kicked out of hospital amid growing number of harassment cases

Healthcare Services Employees’ Union found that more than two in three healthcare workers had witnessed or experienced abuse.
PHOTO: LianHe ZaoBao

SINGAPORE - Patients who abuse healthcare workers may soon find themselves banned or kicked out of hospital, while caregivers who do so may be stopped from entering the premises as healthcare institutions in Singapore take a zero-tolerance stance against the abuse and harassment of staff.

This recommendation, by a tripartite workgroup which looked into the issue, comes amid a high number of such cases, with about one in three nurses, pharmacists and other workers in the sector either witnessing or experiencing abuse or harassment at least once a week.

The recommendations to discharge abusive patients who do not require urgent medical care and stop abusive caregivers or visitors from entering the premises were made by the Tripartite Workgroup for the Prevention of Abuse and Harassment of Healthcare Workers. Other options include issuing a warning and refusing unreasonable requests.

The workgroup, comprising representatives from the Ministry of Health (MOH), Healthcare Services Employees’ Union, the public healthcare clusters, community care partners and private healthcare providers, also proposed having effective reporting and escalation protocols, and a support structure for healthcare workers to report abuse and harassment.

Set up in April last year, it engaged more than 3,000 healthcare workers and over 1,500 members of the public through surveys and focus group discussions conducted in the second half of last year. It found that the more common types of abuse are verbal, including discriminatory or demeaning remarks, or threats, including taking legal action.

It found that more than two in three healthcare workers had witnessed or experienced abuse or harassment in the past year. About a third of all healthcare workers witnessed or experienced abuse at least once a week.

Such abuse is on the rise.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, in a written parliamentary reply to MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling in January 2022, said there were about 1,400 abuse and harassment cases reported by the end of November 2021. There were 1,300 cases in 2020, 1,200 cases in 2019 and 1,080 cases in 2018.

The abuse usually takes place under a range of circumstances like when there are requests for frequent updates which are not met; when a patient needs the nurse to speak in a certain language; and when the patient treats healthcare workers as personal attendants, expecting them to do tasks outside their scope of work or expect preferential treatment.

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It is usually the frontline healthcare workers such as pharmacists, patient service associates, and nurses who are more likely to experience abuse and harassment, the study found.

Speaking at the Health Ministry-National Healthcare Group (MOH-NHG) Staff Engagement Session on Friday, Mr Ong said there is a need to have a clear definition of the word abuse.

“The Tripartite Workgroup has therefore defined abuse as any inappropriate words or behaviour that makes a healthcare worker feel distressed, threatened, harassed or discriminated against, even if the perpetrator said he did not intend to do so,” he said. 

One worrying trend, however, is when healthcare workers have normalised the abuse and harassment and have grown to accept it as part and parcel of the job.

“Many healthcare workers have grown accustomed to abuse as part and parcel of their work. I don’t think it’s healthy,” he said.

“Most of our healthcare staff remain professional, empathetic and compassionate towards patients even in challenging situations. While sharing their experiences of abuse, they expressed understanding, saying that the patients were going through a lot of stress and uncertainty.”

Prevent and promote

There is a group of patients who cannot control themselves. These are people with diminished mental capacity or suffering from conditions such as dementia.

To prevent abuse in such cases, MOH will continue to equip healthcare staff with the skills to interact and manage escalating situations with such patients, said Mr Ong.

He cited the example of Humanitude, a care technique at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), where healthcare workers are trained to focus on aspects like gaze, speech and touch.

“We want to help patients and families understand the role of a healthcare worker, and that healthcare workers cannot be expected to do everything, everywhere, all at once,” he said.

To promote positive relationships between patients and healthcare workers a public education campaign will be launched in the later half of this year “to align expectations and promote respect for healthcare workers”, Mr Ong added.

Public Healthcare Clusters SingHealth, National Healthcare Group and National University Health System said in a joint statement that they welcomed the findings and strongly supported the workgroup’s recommendations.

“While there are currently protocols in place across our institutions to support our staff, the standardised policy will strengthen staff protection by reinforcing the channels available for reporting and escalation, as well as increasing awareness of the consequences of such undesirable behaviour when it happens,” they said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.