Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Violent Patient

On the New York Time's Well blog recently, nurse Theresa Brown wrote a piece entitled "Feeling Strain When Violent Patients Need Care," in which she talked about caring for a very threatening, potentially dangerous patient suffering from cancer. This patient, a large 300 pound man, had a reputation for causing havoc in the hospital. He had been banned from one ward for tearing a light fixture off the wall and fighting with hospital security. He had "slugged" a family member at the nursing station and threatened to kill a nurse. In spite of all this, he apparently was not in custody at the time that Ms. Brown was caring for him, which meant that he was not a prisoner in shackles and there was no dedicated law enforcement professional watching over the situation. Understandably, Ms. Brown was afraid.

What some people might not appreciate or been aware of, was that she was also embarrassed about being afraid. Working in the health care field, and in nursing in particular, meant that one could be exposed to volatile situations at any time. Being a professional meant being able to stay calm and poised enough to manage these situations, and this is where the author of this piece felt lacking. She felt she should have been tougher, more unflappable, or somehow invincible to this very concerning patient's intimidating demeanor. Ultimately she was replaced on the case by a male nurse. We never find out what happened to the patient, whether he actually did commit acts of violence during that admission, or whether he calmed down with the male nurse and cooperated with the care he needed. We also don't come to any resolution about what a health care professional should do in a situation like this. This is not a question the narrative was meant to answer, apparently.

As always in story like this, the most interesting part to me were the comments that followed. Over the next two days nearly one hundred people wrote in, mostly nurses and doctors and other health care professionals, to talk about the multiple incidents in which they were bitten, scratched, spat upon, cursed, hit and kicked in the emergency room, on the psychiatric unit, and in the intensive care unit. Half way through the comments I found myself wondering what the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder must be among health care professionals after a few years of routine work. (I don't know the answer to that question.)

I was also impressed by the range of thoughtfulness that some commenters brought to the situation. Some quickly speculated that the patient might have been a veteran or someone equally traumatized, who would naturally have responded with aggression when startled awake in the middle of the night by a stranger. Others speculated that he might have been having an unexpected reaction to a medication, or been in the midst of a delirium. Some suggested that a CT scan should have been done to make sure his impulsivity and temper weren't due to a malignant brain metastasis. Clearly, these health care professional readers were setting aside their own personal experiences to consider the cause of the patient's emotional reaction and behavior. This was heartening to me.

Other comments were less sympathetic, implying that hospitals should be more liberal in their use of physical and chemical restraints and that assaultive and threatening patients should be prosecuted consistently.

I felt rather fortunate after reading this piece. I've worked with patients known for this kind of violence, but I've been comfortable doing so knowing that safety and security were a necessary and essential condition to providing treatment. I've always felt safer in most correctional facilities I've worked in than in some more traditional clinical settings. Even so, I rarely have had to deal with patients who were so angry or potentially dangerous that I wasn't sure I could treat them even in the correctional setting. That's not good because in most cases there is no one else to turn the patient's care over to when you're the only shrink in the building. This is how I've managed to handle it:

If the patient starts the appointment calmly but escalates during the interview, the first thing I do is slow down. I want time to listen, to think, to make sure the patient knows that I'm hearing him and am concerned about what he's saying. This also helps me listen better. I set my pen down and stop taking notes. I look at the patient. I make sure he knows he has my full attention. If he allows me, I will ask questions to get more information or to clarify something he has said. I repeat what he's told me, and ask him if I am understanding him. If and when he says 'yes', things chill out immediately and we negotiate a treatment plan.

If this doesn't help, or if I start to feel I can't listen safely, I tell the patient I feel uncomfortable or worried. It's not waving a red flag in front of a bull to admit that you're scared. You'd be surprised how many temperamental men (I only treat male prisoners) have no awareness whatsoever that they are talking way too loud or gesturing too broadly or behaving in a way that attracts attention. The nearest correctional officer usually notices first. If I see an officer glancing in to check on me that gives me a nice opportunity to point out to the patient that his behavior is arousing the concern of custody. That always works.

I'm surprised how often an angry inmate will suddenly pull himself together and calm down once you tell him you're scared. Some of them are quick to apologize, or emphasize that---in spite of what they might have done in the past---they have never laid hands on a woman.

Lastly, I know when to recognize when I need to take a break. If I find myself wanting to cut the patient off or getting annoyed---too annoyed to listen---I know it's time to call it a day and try again another time. These are the times when mistakes get made. I can ask the patient if we can take a break and come back to the discussion later in the clinic session, or on another day. I explain that things have gotten heated and I really want to make sure I'm taking the time to think about his care.

If none of this works, I still keep trying. I will make sure I have any necessary security in place, and explain to the patient why it's needed. If someone is available, I may ask another health care professional to sit in the room with me. And make sure an officer is outside the door. In extreme cases, it might be necessary to put the person in handcuffs and a waist chain for the appointment.

Hospitals aren't used to doing any of this, or can't. But when 15% of all US nonfatal on the job injuries take place in health care settings, through patient assaults on staff, it's time to take de-escalation training seriously.