Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Rise in hospital attacks by mentally ill

THERE has been a 50 per cent increase in assaults at NSW hospitals in the 10 years to 2006, mostly upon staff, with a significant rise in attacks by mental health patients.

A report by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research said that most assaults occurred between 3pm and 9pm, peaking on Sundays between 3pm and 6pm, and more often involved males.

A lack of mental health facilities was raised at the Garling public hospital inquiry recently and mental health staff at Nepean and Prince of Wales hospitals have publicly complained about psychiatric patients blocking emergency and a sharp increase in assaults on staff.

The Illawarra region has had a spate of resignations from its mental health ranks, including the director, Monica Taylor, who quit two weeks ago, and the chief psychiatrist, Irwin Pakula, who was fed up with the administration.

The bureau's report found that from 1996 to 2006, police-recorded incidents of assault at hospitals across the state have increased from 214 to 322.

In more than two-thirds of the assaults, the victim was a stranger and was most often either a hospital staff member or police officer.

The report said the cause of the increase in assaults was "unclear" although there was anecdotal evidence that hospitals, particularly emergency departments, had become increasingly strained over the past 10 years.

The introduction of a "zero tolerance towards violence" policy by NSW Health might have encouraged staff to report incidences.

When adjusted for population, most of the assaults occurred in the Hunter region, followed by Sydney metropolitan and the Illawarra.

The most notable trend over the period was a "dramatic" increase in assaults by mental health patients, which increased from 19.2 per cent of all assaults in 1996 to 31.7 per cent in 2006, representing a 65 per cent increase, the report said.

The Opposition health spokeswoman, Jillian Skinner, said frontline workers bore the brunt of the Government's failure to deliver adequate mental health services.

"Hard-working doctors and nursing staff should not have to accept assaults on hospital premises as part of their job description," Mrs Skinner said.

The Health Minister, John Della Bosca, said NSW Health had improved security in public hospitals with more closed-circuit televisions and duress alarms, safer entry and exit points, and better lighting and car park security. Mr Della Bosca said the Government also provided 450 new mental health beds between 2001 and last year.

He said the bureau found a 25per cent drop in assaults from 2005 to 2006. Most increases in assaults occurred between 1996 and 2001, with a significant drop between 2005 and 2006 from 6.2 hospital assaults per 100,000 people to 4.7 per 100,000.

But the data includes only assaults reported to police, just a fraction of the average eight a day across the health system. In 2006, alcohol caused 30.5 per cent of assaults; drugs, 17.1 per cent.

Professor Gordian Fulde, the director of emergency services at St Vincent's Public Hospital, said the jump in assaults was probably due to increased reporting and a huge increase in mental health patients over the past five years.

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