Monday, April 23, 2018

Caring for agitated patients...and ourselves

- Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH

A patient of mine, who works in healthcare, was allegedly assaulted by a patient last week with injuries serious enough to warrant an Emergency Department visit. I suspect many healthcare workers can tell stories of times when they, or a colleague, felt unsafe with a patient. Nearly 70% of workplace assaults in the U.S. occur in healthcare or social services settings. A 2010 study of family physicians in Canada found that 39% reported at least one serious assault at some point during their career. Although thoughtful preparation can't provide a complete guarantee of safety, it can help to reduce the risk of serious injury at the hands of an agitated patient.

A recent AFP review of the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Practice Guidelines on Psychiatric Evaluation in Adults includes taking a thorough mental health and social history, assessing for substance abuse, and assessing for risk of harm to self or others:
If the patient reports having aggressive ideas, the APA recommends that clinicians assess the patient's impulsivity, including anger management issues; determine the patient's access to firearms; identify specific persons toward whom homicidal or aggressive ideas or behaviors have been directed; and ask about the history of violent behaviors in the patient's biological relatives.
Patients can be agitated for reasons besides a mental health issue, according to a recent article in the Journal of Family Practice. Before determining whether a patient's agitation is due to a mental/behavioral health issue, metabolic/physiological cause, substance use, and/or perceptions of unfair treatment, though, we should employ the same de-escalation techniques: stay calm, be non-confrontational, assess the availability of help, and explore solutions. The article provides suggestions for maximizing safety with agitated patients in a variety of practice settings and also suggests the use of scales like the Agitated Behavior Scale to assess risk. It also includes a discussion on interventions to mitigate the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in healthcare workers including Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) and workplace support measures like Cleveland Clinic's "Code Lavender."

"What to Do When Emotions Run High" from the current issue of Family Practice Management centers on the importance of recognizing, and then addressing, patients' upset feelings before they escalate. The author encourages physicians to pay attention to nonverbal cues (such as "a blank stare or an angry tone") and respond to them by sharing your observation and making gentle inquiries ("'[I]t seems like something is really bothering you today,'" or "'I sense I may have done something to upset you, and if so I'd like for us to discuss it'"). Providing empathic statements can help to defuse tensions, and the author's advice to not "take it personally" reminds us that patients' upset feelings "are usually not about us."

Have you discussed workplace safety where you practice? What resources have you found helpful?

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