New law provides added protections for Kansas healthcare workers

Gov. Laura Kelly was in Wichita on Thursday signing a bill that increases the criminal penalties for workplace assaults against healthcare workers.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 5:39 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Healthcare workers in Kansas soon will have further protections against violence they face in their jobs. On Thursday, June 8, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and and state lawmakers held a ceremonial signing of the bill aimed at protecting the frontline workers.

Thursday, 12 News spoke with healthcare workers in Wichita about what they face, in particular an aspect of the job the new law addresses.

“You’re there for the comfort and care of the patient. Day after day of being abused can definitely make you into a person who isn’t able to give that anymore,” said Wesley Medical Center Emergency Department Director Rebecca Gilbert.

Gilbert has spent 10 years as a nurse in Wesley’s ER, ascending to the department’s director.

“I have seen anything from verbal abuse daily to violence that has gotten to the point of nurses begin taken to the floor by patients and repeatedly punched in the face,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, a survey by the Kansas Hospital Association found about 50% of hospitals reported an instance of physical violence at least once a year. Others see the violence multiple times a month, or even a a week. And in the healthcare field, doctors and nurses aren’t the only frontline workers facing these attacks.

It’s a situation that has worsened in recent years.

“With new nurses coming in, that we really want to instill in them is, ‘this isn’t okay,’” Gilbert said of the abuse. “I think there was a time in nursing where we said, this is what we do, and the patient can act as they want to act.’ We’ve really turned that as a healthcare organization and as a health care in general of, ‘don’t accept that. Don’t accept that patients may give you that kind of behavior.’”

Numbers provided by the Kansas Hospital Association show last year (2022), Ascension Via Christi, in Wichita, reported nearly 400 incidents of violence and in Kansas City, KU Health Systems reported more than 350.

In Topeka, Stormont Vail Director for Workers Compensation and Workplace Safety Chris Buesing recalled an attack he faced in 2017. He’s among hospital workers seeking more protections.

“Walking down the hall, there was a person that had been sitting on a bench and he stood up and he attacked me and punched me in the jaw,” Buesing said.

Legislation passed and signed into law increases penalties for assaults on healthcare workers and adds a crime for interfering with healthcare services.

“They aren’t free to come back the next day and do the same thing again and again, which does happen in health care,” said.

Sometimes, the damage has already been done. Gilbert’s seen former colleagues and friends never return after an attack or give up after years of facing abuse on the job.