Nurse Safety: How to Stay Safe From Patient Harassment

nurse harassmentBy Erin Wallace, Contributor

In February 2018, NBC reported that for some ER nurses, patient harassment is “par for the course.” Meghan Justice, an ER nurse featured in the story, reported that it's not uncommon for patients to call her a “cute little thing” or grab her breasts as she leans over to put in an IV line. She goes on to explain that in the ER, nurses tend to be very hands-on with patients, who are sometimes inebriated, on drugs or very ill, and sometimes these incidents occur.

But it doesn't have to be that way for nurses. No nurse at any medical facility should have to endure patient harassment — but it can happen, and it's important for nurses to stay aware and safe.

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Recognizing What Nurse Harassment Is and How to Handle It

In responding to a Medscape poll that asked whether nurses had been harassed by a patient, many more nurses (71 percent) than physicians (47 percent) said yes.

Responses came from 1,045 medical professionals, including 569 nurses, 408 physicians and 68 other healthcare providers (HCPs). Harassment in this poll was defined as:


  • Patient stalking
  • Persistent attempts at communication
  • Inappropriate social media contact
  • Physical harassment


Violence and threats from patients

One woman who responded to the survey, said she had been an NP for 19 years and an RN for 40 years after having been a nurse's aide, recalled a particularly disturbing incident with one of her patients.

“I have been bit, hit and kicked when I was younger. More recently, verbal abuse has seemed to increase greatly in frequency. The majority of the time, [the harassment] has been related to refusing to continue pain meds or benzos. I had one patient, whom I had refused to give cough medicine with a narcotic in it, threaten me by saying, 'What will you think if I show up in your driveway at midnight if I can't quit coughing?'“

Several respondents referenced drug dependency as one of the most common impetuses for threats and violence.

In July 2017, for instance, Todd Graham, MD, a psychiatrist in South Bend, Indiana, was gunned down in an emergency room parking lot after he refused to prescribe opioid pain medication to the shooter's wife, who was a patient of Dr. Graham's.

While most incidents of nurse harassment don't escalate to that degree, it's still important for nurses to stay safe on the job.

How can nurses protect themselves from patient harassment?

Donna Matthezing, RN, from Compassionate Care in the Air, Inc., has been a nurse for 29 years, and she provides this advice to maintain nurse safety.

First, “know your boundaries and don't ever let any patient overstep them.” Second, “maintain clear communication with your patients, manager, family members or other caregivers about what you consider to be harassment and what you will not tolerate.”

Finally, Matthezing says, “never put yourself at risk for the 'good' of the patient. If there is a history of harassment, ensure you have backup support on hand, whether it's extra hands or maybe even security.”

Be aware of existing workplace protection

Lawyer David Reischer, Esq., employment attorney and CEO of, notes that a healthcare organization any nurse works for is “obligated to protect its employees from patients who act inappropriately. A healthcare organization needs to have policies in place that allow for reporting of sexual harassment and [these workplaces should] take all such claims seriously."

Reischer goes on to say that nurses are further protected by the Title VII federal law that “prohibits gender discrimination,” and they're also protected by any applicable state laws. “Nurses who are victims of sexual harassment have the right to be protected from [it] the same as any other industry,” Reischer says.

Recognize when harassment is occurring and report it

Hahnah Williams, Esq., RN, who is both a nurse and an attorney, says that the first step for nurses to stay safe from patient harassment is to recognize when it is happening.

“At times, it is difficult for a nurse to deciper whether the alleged harassment is an unintentional part of the patient's disease process or if it is intentional conduct that has nothing to do with the patient's illness.”

Adequate on-the-job training is important for this reason and also why it's a good idea to have a backup nurse to increase safety.

Williams also notes that it's important for nurses to communicate any incidents of patient harassment to the charge nurse or nurse manager immediately. “Hospitals typically have policies and procedures that nurses are supposed to follow in cases of patient harassment. Nurses should be very familiar with their employer's policy and follow it.”

Notify hospital security if necessary

Williams also notes that nurses should notify hospital security any time they have any safety concerns. Hospitals and medical centers typically have their own protocol related to security plans in place that “keep nurses safe from patients who may be a threat to the nurse's physical well-being.”

Handling the aftermath of patient harassment

Williams says it's important for nurses to recognize that patient harassment “can result in the nurse feeling victimized.” After a harassment incident, "the nurse should speak with their employer to obtain assistance with any emotional or mental issues that [may] have resulted from the harassment [incident].”

Many hospitals have resources available for employees who have been victims of patient harassment that sometimes includes access to psychiatrists or legal assistance.

Whether you've been a nurse for a while or you're just starting your career, it's important to keep these nurse safety tips in mind to protect yourself from patient harassment. Know that you have existing workplace regulations and existing laws for extra protection.



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