Melissa, 22, and 2 other nurses were caring for a dozen patients with cancer at a small community hospital in the middle of the night when an older man walked into the oncology unit.

“It wasn’t unusual to have people coming in and out of the unit, even at strange hours,” Melissa told Cancer Therapy Advisor.

But she knew something was wrong when he donned a ski mask, wielded a gun partially covered in a paper bag, and held it over the nurse’s station, demanding drugs.

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A registered nurse for only 2 months, Melissa was confused. “What could he possibly want, antibiotics? It just didn’t click to me,” she said.

Then he said he wanted morphine. It was January 1996, just after a snowstorm, and it was his drug dealer’s day off.

Violence Often Underreported or Ignored by Health Care Facilities

Health care workplace violence is an “underreported, ubiquitous, and persistent problem that has been tolerated and largely ignored,” wrote James P. Phillips, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA, in an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine.1

Episodes of workplace violence against medical providers, such as what happened to Melissa, occur daily across the country. Such violence takes many forms, from verbal abuse to sexual harassment to physical assault—even murder.

Nearly 75% of the 24 000 annual workplace assaults between 2011 and 2013 occurred in health care settings. “Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that health care workers are nearly 4 times as likely to require time away from work as a result of violence as they are because of other types of injury,” Dr Phillips wrote.

Despite these alarming statistics, he noted that data supporting the prevalence of workplace violence in the health care setting have been proven “grossly inaccurate,” particularly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as the federal agency does not record verbal incidents.

Emergency physicians and nurses have the most contact with patients; therefore, it is not surprising that they report the highest assault rates. Yet, as Melissa’s experience shows, all clinicians are at risk.