Doctors and nurses are calling for the government to urgently improve hospital security after a vicious attack at Western Hospital left a leading surgeon battling life-threatening injuries.
The attack has also highlighted the Victorian government’s failure to introduce tougher penalties for attacks on paramedics and emergency department staff despite repeated promises to change laws since 2012.
Head of neurosurgery at Western Hospital Michael Wong remains in a serious but stable condition in the hospital’s intensive care unit today after sustaining multiple stab wounds to various parts of his body during the attack on Tuesday morning.
A hospital spokeswoman said Dr Wong’s family rushed to be with him after the assault, which occurred while the 43-year-old was walking through the hospital foyer on his way into work about 8:30am on Tuesday.
Kareem Al-Salami, 48, of Sunshine North, was arrested shortly after the incident and has been charged with the attempted murder of Dr Wong.
It is unclear if the two know each other or what the motive could have been, however Kareem Al-Salami’s lawyer told the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Tuesday that his client was taking various medications and that he was concerned about his client’s mental wellbeing.
The assault has sparked fierce criticism of the Victorian government’s response to repeated calls from doctors and nurses to improve security in hospitals.
In the lead-up to the 2010 election, the Coalition promised to spend $21 million on putting armed guards in hospitals but when the policy faced criticism, a parliamentary inquiry was held in 2011 to look at alternative options.
Following the inquiry, the government promised to spend $21 million on other measures to improve security in hospitals, but has so far only committed $5.8 million over four years to improve training and install duress alarms in some wards.
In 2012, Attorney-General Robert Clark said the Victorian Coalition government would legislate for longer sentences for people who attack paramedics and emergency department workers in hospitals but so far, no legislation has been introduced. Even if the laws had been introduced, they may not have helped Dr Wong because he did not routinely work in the emergency department and he was not there when the attack occurred.
Following the horrific attack, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine and the Victorian Emergency Physicians Association said more needed to be done to protect health workers against violence which is occurring regularly in Victoria’s crowded hospitals.
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Stephen Parnis, who has previously called for more CCTV cameras in hospitals, and 24-hour guards, said the incident was an example of the “real dangers that hospital and healthcare workers face”.
Dr Parnis said health workers were entitled to feel safe at work and called on the state government to introduce promised legislation that would increase penalties for violent crimes committed against health workers.
He said there had been three inquiries into hospital safety in recent years in Victoria yet little had been done.
A spokesman for Victorian Health Minister David Davis said an advisory committee has been established to provide advice and oversight on initiatives and that the Minister for Health and the Attorney-General had met with the AMA and had “constructive discussions about potential responses, including possible legislative responses”.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation state secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said she was extremely concerned “but unfortunately not surprised” by the attack.
“Those who work in hospitals, particularly those in the frontline – nurses, midwives and doctors – are being punched, hit, kicked, bitten, choked, knocked unconscious and threatened and attacked with weapons every day.
“It would not be tolerated in an office or any other workplace and it should not be tolerated in a hospital. Our political leaders must stop ignoring this horrific violence and take immediate action to make hospitals safe,” she said.
Victorian chairman of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, Dr Simon Judkins, said problems of violence were not limited to any one hospital or geographical area.
“Particularly in a public hospital [emergency department]… we do deal with a large proportion of disenfranchised, mentally ill, drug-affected patients who can’t get care anywhere else,” he said.
“We often deal with patients who the police don’t want to take to the cells because they are psychologically disturbed so they come to the ED and that can be quite scary for our staff in the early hours of the morning.
“I think this sort of thing could happen in any ED anywhere. We have an open door access policy.”
Dr Judkins said it was possible that no security measures could have prevented the attack on Dr Wong, but greater efforts were needed to protect staff in hospitals against violence.
He said problems included low staffing levels overnight in emergency departments and shift workers returning to their cars through dark carparks without any security.
“No matter what happens there will still be incidents like this but it does raise concerns… No other profession would put up with this. People get abused, punched, pushed and threatened… We expect that’s going to happen and we shouldn’t, we should expect to feel safe in our workplace.”
Victorian Emergency Physicians Association president Allan Whitehead said the state government needed to provide more funding to enhance security, particularly for smaller hospitals with emergency departments that did not have adequate security.