Doctor’s warning: ‘Hospitals not safe for anyone’
WHEN a man allegedly drove his car up to Nepean Hospital's emergency room entrance last week and began threatening staff with knives, Dr Michael Wong was watching on several hundred kilometres away.
For the renowned Victorian brain surgeon and spinal injury specialist, it was yet another example of woefully inadequate security and dangerous building design putting workers and patients at serious risk.
Police responding to the terrifying incident on Thursday were forced to shoot the alleged attacker, who they say also left a note claiming there was a bomb in his vehicle outside.
In Melbourne, Dr Wong was driving home from his clinic after a busy day when the news blared across his car radio. At home that night, he watched his TV in unsurprised horror.
"It just highlighted for me once again that hospitals in Australia are not safe environments for anyone," the neurologist said.
"These violent attacks can happen quite easily on any given day, at almost any hospital."
PAINFUL PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Four-and-a-half years earlier, Dr Wong had just arrived for work at Footscray Hospital and was walking through the foyer when a deranged man launched at him, stabbing him 14 times.
Miraculously, Dr Wong survived the frenzied attack thanks to the quick actions of onlookers, who dragged his bloodied body 100 metres through corridors to the emergency department.
Until police arrived and could subdue the man, it was up to onlookers to use paperwork folders, chairs and anything else they could find to fight him off.
Within half an hour Dr Wong was on an operating theatre table, where doctors worked to save him from life-threatening injuries to his back, head, legs and arms.
"I remember every second of it," Dr Wong said of the February 18, 2014 incident.
"Every single second. I had walked into the foyer of the hospital and somebody attacked me. I don't think we will get to the bottom of why he attacked me but we found out he had a very serious mental illness. For whatever reason, he attacked me."
He lost his entire blood supply and had to receive six litres of transfusions. He endured a 10-hour surgery and subsequent plastic surgery.
"During the attack, I remember just wanting to get away. I wasn't thinking about work or my future. I just wanted to stay alive and try to survive the situation."
But later during his long recovery, the gravity of the situation dawned on him.
Dr Wong wondered if his shredded hands would ever be able to grip a scalper again. He contemplated the split-second decision he'd made to turn his head away from the attacker so the blade that plunged into his skull would miss crucial parts of his brain.
HOSPITALS AT SERIOUS RISK
After almost a year of physical therapy, he was able to return to work - but it was with a "heightened awareness" of how at risk he and his colleagues and patients were.
"From my point of view, hospitals are dealing with people who may have mental illness or may be affected by drugs every single day. As a result, it increases the risk of violence.
"Hospitals are not secure and I believe violent attacks can happen quite easily at almost every location. It's not safe for anyone."
Hospital grounds are largely public spaces, he pointed out, with unfettered access to sensitive areas and little-to-no screening of those who come in.
"The general public can quite easily walk into any foyer of a hospital without being stopped or checked," Dr Wong said.
"And for most hospitals, right now, you can walk into any ward unchecked. It's an old design for hospitals of bygone areas. The risk of violence in modern days has increased and those designs are no longer acceptable."
At Nepean Hospital last week, security officers - who it's understood were unarmed - had to call the police to control the situation.
"That to me is unacceptable," Dr Wong said.
"Obviously the security staff at the hospital weren't resourced enough to deal with the situation. In most cases I'm aware of, they are on a skeleton staff."
At airports, the general public are carefully screened before they are allowed into restricted areas. Some tourist locations have metal detectors and bag check points.
At state parliament buildings across the country, where politicians made health funding decisions assess issues like hospital security, no one would be able to come and go unchecked.
"Why are hospitals different? It comes down to resourcing. It's not adequate. If something critical happens, they are not in a position to control the situation.
"What we're putting into security is not adequate to protect patients and staff."
More funding is needed for hospital security, Dr Wong said, especially for more "boots on the ground" and dedicated security points at entrances.
"Wards should not be publicly accessible. They should be closed off. Staff should have to swipe in and family members visiting patients ring the door bell and are checked," he said.
"In many hospitals in the US, there are separate entrances for staff, meaning they don't enter in the same area as patients."
ATTACKS ALL TOO COMMON
Since his recovery, Dr Wong has repeatedly spoken out in the aftermath of violent attacks on hospital staff, including the death of cardiac thoracic surgeon Patrick Pritzwald-Stegmann.
Dr Pritzwald-Stegmann was coward-punched in the foyer of Bill Hill Hospital and died four weeks later as a result of his injuries.
After his death, it was revealed there had been 8627 reports of occupational violence in the state's hospitals in that year alone.
"The people who work in our hospitals, health system and ambulance service, caring for others, should not be at risk of violent attack," Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation state security Lisa Fitzpatrick said at the time.
As a head and spinal injury specialist, Dr Wong has treated countless patients who sustained injuries from attacks while working in health roles.
He has seen receptionists punched in the face at desks, nurses shoved to the ground and doctors hit or kicked in the course of their duties.
"It's very common," he said. "I see a lot of it. But many don't have a voice - they're told to get over it. The reality is these aren't acceptable work environments and that's why I must speak out."
The health sector has been crying out for more attention on the issue of violent attacks, with no shortage of headlines about worrying incidents in recent years.
In August, a nurse at Blacktown Hospital in western Sydney was allegedly slashed by an agitated patient armed with two knives.
In May, there were 46 'code grey' incidents - describing aggressive, abusive of threatening behaviour - at Traralgon Hospital, west of Melbourne.
Hospital staff in Townsville in North Queensland wear body cameras in a bid to curb the number of attacks on doctors and nurses, of which there were 687 in 2017.
In April, an orderly sued Frankston Hospital in Melbourne's south after being seriously injured while helping security to restrain an aggressive patient two years earlier.
That same month, three nurses at Footscray Hospital were injured after being allegedly assaulted by an out-of-control patient.
And national data shows the number of 'code black' incidents - where the immediate safety of hospital staff is threatened - numbered 6245 in 2016-17.
However health lobby groups believe the number of incidents are seriously under-reported.
Research by the Australian College for Emergency Medicine found 90 per cent of doctors and nurses will experience a violent incident in their careers.
A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health said: "Hospital security is a state govt responsibility."
Authorities in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland were approached for comment.
A spokesperson for NSW Health said the number of staff at hospital across the state increased by 269 over the past eight years. It has spent $19 million in capital works, from CCTV to remote-locking doors, and a further $5 million un upgrading emergency department safety.