The threat of violence is, unfortunately, both a major safety issue and a daily fact of life for healthcare workers in hospitals and health systems across South Carolina.
Studies show that healthcare workers are significantly more likely to be the victims of violence and abuse than workers in other industries, and our state has felt the effects of that reality. Last year saw high-profile assaults on workers at Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg and Prisma Health Laurens County Hospital in the Upstate. Those were just two headline-grabbing incidents among quite common occurrences like verbal assault, throwing things or physical scuffles. To add insult to injury, South Carolina is one of only three states without enhanced penalties for violence against healthcare workers.
Despite this bleak status quo, South Carolina hospitals and health systems like Tidelands Health are fighting back.
“This has really been a focus for our organization for quite a while now,” says Amy Stevens, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the health system.
“Our CEO will often say that there is no more important issue in our organization than whether the people in our facility are safe—whether that's our patients, our staff or visitors.”
Tidelands Health has taken a holistic approach to addressing workplace violence in an effort to take care of staff and patients as well as encourage broader policy and cultural changes. “We knew we wanted to have a really coordinated communication approach, both internally and externally, for a couple of reasons,” Steven notes. “First, we need to educate. Particularly if you are on the external side and not in a healthcare setting, this isn't your reality. This is probably not an issue that you're familiar with or is top of mind for you.”
Tidelands Health has worked frequently with local media and broadcast outlets to raise awareness around the threat of violence to its workers and has actively lobbied the State House for enhanced penalties. A recent lobbying visit to Columbia that featured hospital CEO Bruce Bailey alongside nursing leader Ashley Capps, the associate vice president of nursing operations, and ER head nurse Deborah Gainey won a great deal of media coverage and accentuated Tidelands Health’s commitment to the issue.
“We’ve done everything from having informal conversations and calls to scheduled meetings and legislative roundtables focused on this topic, and we have linked it with the issues of opioid dependence and behavioral health, because the three are so intertwined,” says Stevens. “It has become very clear in those efforts that there's a real understanding of the importance of this issue [in that regard].”
Internally, the communications team at the health system has made expansive use of intranet, internal communications, and scheduled town hall meetings to keep the problem—particularly confronting and reporting it—fresh in staff members’ minds. But it’s not only the two-pronged approach for internal and external audiences, Steven says, it’s also about how one complements the other and demonstrates that the health system is “walking the walk” when it comes to addressing workplace violence.
“It’s important to educate those external audiences and let them know that it's an issue that matters. But it also matters to our internal audience, our staff, to see that we're not just talking, we're doing something about this serious issue,” she points out. “It doesn't come from me. It comes straight from the CEO and the chairman of our board.”
That’s why the presence of the CEO, along with hospital leaders and support staff, on lobbying trips is so critical.
“It shows that our CEO is committed to [the issue]. It was important to us that it was also not just him, that a nurse who had actually experienced an act of violence was also present and that her nurse leader traveled with her in a show of support,” Stevens notes. “It really shows how we are actively going out and taking action and advocating for our staff members.”
It says, ‘We hear you, we know it’s serious, and here’s what we’re doing.’”