LEWISTON — Patient assaults on health care providers have “more than doubled” in recent years, according to the chief of psychiatry at St. Mary’s Health.
This is another example of the strain the pandemic has placed on healthcare workers. Demand for mental health care services has skyrocketed during the pandemic, Dr Michael Kelley said, while the workforce has shrunk.
More adults than ever before have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. But it’s harder than ever to find a provider without being on a waiting list for months. This has led to more patients – with more acute behavioral health needs – presenting to emergency departments like the one at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.
“Many group homes that house patients with behavioral health issues have closed, and those that are still operating are filled to capacity and cannot accept more patients,” Kelley said.
“When group homes close, many transfer patients to hospital emergency rooms which are already full. If the patient is not ill enough to be admitted to St. Mary’s Inpatient Behavioral Unit and does not have a home, they remain in the ER and we try to find a placement,” said Kelly.
During the pandemic, St. Mary’s emergency department has gone from an average of eight to 10 psychiatric patient visits per day to about 18.
St. Mary’s has two emergency services: a general and a behavioral one.
And these patients have to wait an average of 36 to 72 hours in the service for a placement, either in the general psychiatry unit of the hospital, or elsewhere. Before the pandemic, the average wait time was eight hours.
And sometimes these patients become violent with the hospital staff.
Violent incidents where a patient assaults a staff member have become more frequent and serious, Kelley said. Some staff members suffered broken bones and concussions.
“It has a dramatic impact on us,” he said.
Steve Littleson, president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, said in a brief statement late Friday that an “epidemic of violence in our hospitals is another crisis healthcare workers face every day.”
CMH is the parent company of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
Littleson said the issue “takes a heavy toll” on hospital staff and deserves more attention. He did not say whether there had been any incidents at CMMC involving personnel.
“This is a complex situation that requires the best problem-solving and collaborative efforts of all stakeholders in this space,” Littleson said, but refrained from providing specifics.
Nurses at Maine’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, protested what they said were unsafe working conditions in the emergency department.
Maine Medical Center nurses are members of the Maine branch of the National Nurses United union. Todd Ricker, the Maine State Nurses Association’s chief union negotiator, told the Portland Press Herald earlier this week that emergency service nurses “are experiencing extreme violence on the job.”
“They’ve been kicked, punched, spat on and concussed at the hands of patients they’re there to care for,” he said.
Responsible patients are there for psychiatric issues, Ricker said.
On Friday, Maine Medical Center officials agreed to increase emergency department staffing to protect nurses.
Nurses at St. Mary’s and CMMC are not unionized. St. Mary’s spokesman Steve Costello declined a request to interview a nurse there.
Kelley, the head of psychiatry, said St. Mary’s has implemented additional training programs for staff on how to protect themselves and recognize a potentially dangerous situation. The hospital is also looking to hire more security guards and station attendants in “more visible areas”.
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