Is It Wise to Further Criminalize Attacks on Nurses?

On November 2, a patient at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood attacked four nurses, severely injuring two before police tackled him. One nurse came away with a broken wrist, another a collapsed lung.

This and other violent hospital encounters inspired State Rep. Joe Atkins to propose a nurse protection bill that would increase penalties for people convicted of assaulting nurses. Under the new bill, a particularly nasty patient could serve up to three years in prison and pay $6,000 for hitting a health worker.

"The law already allows for patients convicted of this crime to be put in jail. This would just allow them to be jailed longer and be fined more," Atkins said.

A study by Public Citizen, a nonprofit group that investigates workplace conditions, shows nurses are seven times more likely to get hurt on the job than the average professional. The state Office of Occupational Health and Safety Administration reports it's only getting worse every year.

Yet, locking up patients for acting out may not help the situation.

In the St. John's Hospital incident earlier this month, the guy who attacked his nurses passed out and died as soon as police handcuffed him. Maplewood police are still waiting on a toxicology report to determine whether something other than raging assholery drove him to do it - for instance his medical condition.

By all accounts, the patient was acting completely out of character, said Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell. "Whatever was happening, he wasn't the same man. When you put that into context, further criminalization of his conduct would not have made a difference."

At the same time, Schnell says his police department regularly receives calls from nurses in the memory care unit about trouble with elderly patients suffering from dementia. Those nurses often seem ashamed to report the incident, he says, especially when criminal intent is questionable.

That's not to say nurses should have to let somebody's ornery uncle get away with slapping them around like it's part of the job description. Atkins says he's still fleshing out the bill, but he plans to introduce it in February or March.

See also: Suicide-encouraging nurse Melchert-Dinkel is "very decent human being," lawyer says