AUSTIN (KXAN) — A bullet didn’t just break a glass window at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin. For some, it also shattered their sense of safety.
“I’m working today during the busy holiday, and nobody from the hospital’s leadership team told any associates that this happened,” one person, who identified himself as an employee, told KXAN about the incident which took place on the Fourth of July. “Everyone that works here walks through that sky bridge. There isn’t even a security presence.”
KXAN spoke with the employee, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly without fear of losing his job.
This incident highlights how health care workers, taught to “do no harm,” are forced to adapt to a new emergency: growing threats of violence.
On July 4 shortly after 9 a.m., a single gunshot was fired at the sky bridge connecting the parking garage on 15th Street to Dell Seton, according to the University of Texas at Austin Police Department.
No one was injured or, as of this week, arrested.
Photos sent to KXAN show a glass panel cracked in a spiderweb pattern covered by two thin strips of yellow caution tape. The American Hospital Association, or AHA, isn’t surprised.
“It’s very disheartening to say the least,” said John Riggi, formerly with the FBI and now a national advisor for cyber security and risk with the AHA, a trade group representing nearly 5,000 hospitals. “These acts of violence are despicable.”
‘A top-risk issue’
Six weeks ago, KXAN requested calls for service from Austin police for all area hospitals. We have yet to receive that data. However, a study in the National Library of Medicine found, since the start of the pandemic: 44% of nurses nationwide reported being subjected to physical assault and 68% experienced verbal harassment.
Nationwide, as of 2018, health care workers were five times more likely to experience workplace violence, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found the trend has been steadily rising since at least 2011.
“Almost all hospital CEOs I speak to across the country now say, along with cyber threats, physical threats of violence against staff is a top-risk issue,” said Riggi.
Ascension, the parent company for Dell Seton Medical Center, said all managers were notified of the sky bridge incident and “advised to update their teams as needed.”
“We maintain a security presence at all our hospital facilities and continue to follow proper safety protocols to protect our associates, patients and their families,” Ascension Seton said in a statement.
In an unrelated incident, the hospital was placed on lockdown in June. Three suspects, one armed with a gun, ran inside the hospital and were arrested following a drive-by shooting. That same month, a mass shooting at a medical complex in Tulsa, Oklahoma left five people dead.
Last year, a gunman at a health clinic in Minnesota opened fire, killing one and injuring four people. In January 2021, Austin pediatrician Dr. Katherine Lindsley Dodson was murdered at Children’s Medical Group during a hostage standoff.
The rising violence prompted the AHA to send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“For medical professionals, being assaulted or intimidated can no longer be tolerated ‘as part of the job,'” the letter said. “This unacceptable situation demands a federal response.”
‘Part of the job’
Following the gunshot that hit the bridge at Dell Seton Medical Center, the person who identified as an employee sent us photos — not just of the shattered glass, but from an internal presentation showing the hospital is stepping up security. Among the changes: adding 24/7 metal detectors and bulletproof glass in the emergency department, hiring more security, staffing the garage with a dedicated officer and installing security phones in the sky bridge.
Ascension would not confirm or deny any new security measures.
“Unfortunately, many health care workers now believe that sustaining physical attacks or assaults or threats or intimidation are now just part of the job,” said Riggi. “And we believe that should not be the case.”
On Capitol Hill, a new bill — the Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act — aims to stiffen penalties by making assaults against health care workers a federal crime. It was sent to the House Judiciary Committee in June. Ascension Seton said it is working with Sen. John Cornyn on the bill.
The AHA supports the bill as hospitals across the country beef up security, surveillance and active-shooter training.
“Dealing with the pandemic, dealing with cyber threats — the last thing they should have to worry about is threats of violence,” Riggi said.
A recent article written by the Association of American Medical Colleges attributes increased aggression to confusion over care, frustrations amid staffing shortages, political and social issues and mental health disorders.
In Texas, during the last legislative session, several bills failed to pass that would have allowed patients to carry handguns in hospitals. The Texas Hospital Association said health care settings are “simply no place for guns” and will work to prevent that.
“These incidents are reminders of why guns don’t work in hospitals and why we’ve worked so hard to preserve our gun-free environments,” said Carrie Williams with the THA. “Hospitals are supposed to be a safe place for healing, but difficult decisions are made daily inside our facilities and the addition of guns only escalate the chance for violence.”
The THA said it supports identifying patients as having a “history of violence when they are admitted to health care services” without violating their privacy.