Punches and slaps: Healthcare workers recall how they were abused
When senior staff nurse Devi Raman tried to stop a patient from breaking Covid-19 rules by leaving a ward in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, she was verbally abused and hit on the wrist – all over a glass of iced water.
The patient had been irritated that nurses were taking some time to get him the drink. “My colleagues needed to go and get ice cubes. I tried explaining to him that the water was on the way, but he started shouting,” said Mrs Raman, 33.
The patient then decided to go to a nearby convenience store to buy a drink, but patients were not allowed to leave the ward then.
When Mrs Raman touched his arm to stop him walking away and to steady him, as he was limping, the patient turned physically abusive. “My colleagues surrounded him, but he continued to shout vulgarities at me and asked who I was to stop him from leaving,” she said.
Security stepped in and doctors issued a stern warning to the patient.
“Because I have a frozen shoulder, I couldn’t move my whole arm after he hit me. I had to take painkillers,” said Mrs Raman, referring to a condition which results in stiffness in the shoulder joint.
The incident in January 2023 was not the only time Mrs Raman experienced abuse in her 11 years at the hospital, but it was the first time she lodged a police report.
“Some patients we’ve encountered are unstable. There have been patients who throw things, or take a chair to break the computer – all kinds of things. But they don’t know what they’re doing... For this case, the patient was aware of what he was doing,” said Mrs Raman.
According to findings from a tripartite workgroup on healthcare worker abuse, almost one in three healthcare workers witness or experience abuse at least once a week.
Ng Teng Fong General Hospital enrolled nurse Ravichandran Gannapathy was slapped in September 2020 by a patient’s caregiver after she was not allowed to visit due to restrictions during the pandemic.
“I was very shocked and embarrassed because it happened in front of everyone. Even the public saw it,” said the 55-year-old, adding that his face was bruised from the altercation. He was given medical attention and a police report was lodged.
The hospital provided CCTV footage as evidence and in November 2021, the caregiver pleaded guilty to one count of voluntarily causing hurt and was fined.
An assistant nurse clinician working at the emergency department at the National University Hospital, who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan, described an incident in which a middle-aged man charged into the emergency room and started pointing and shouting at the healthcare staff.
As he grew more aggressive, especially around other patients, Ms Tan stepped in to manage the situation. He pushed her on the shoulder, causing her to almost fall. The man was eventually subdued by security guards and a member of the medical staff after a short scuffle.
“I sustained some pain over the shoulder region. Two of my colleagues also sustained some bruises, and one of them had strangle marks,” said Ms Tan, who has been working at the hospital for 14 years.
She has seen more instances of verbal abuse during the pandemic as next of kin grew anxious over not being able to see their loved ones due to visitor restrictions.
“A lot of people don’t know that when they use vulgarities or criticise us, it’s abusive. Although we are not physically hurt, we are emotionally hurt,” said Ms Tan, adding that more awareness is needed to promote respect for healthcare workers.
In a joint statement, public healthcare clusters SingHealth, the National Healthcare Group (NHG) and the National University Health System (NUHS) said that their institutions have been actively building a culture that supports staff in reporting and standing up against abuse and harassment.
SingHealth has been working with healthcare professionals, patients and caregivers to speak up against abuse and harassment publicly since late 2021. NHG has networks such as a staff protection committee to ensure a safe workplace for all employees. NUHS has a staff protection programme which equips healthcare workers with the know-how to respond to and de-escalate situations.
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