SALT LAKE CITY — Assaulting a health care professional in Utah could carry the same sentence as assaulting a police officer in Utah due to a new law signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in a ceremony at St. Mark's Hospital on Tuesday.
“Get the word out,” said Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, an emergency room doctor at St. Mark's Hospital who sponsored the bill. “If you know what you’re doing and you still go out and assault a nurse or a firefighter or one of our EMS workers when all they’re trying to do is help you or maybe a friend or family member, there’s going to be a penalty for that.”
Whether it's a paramedic reviving a violently flailing man who has overdosed or a nurse dealing with an upset patient in the ER, assaults on health care workers are growing increasingly common, said Dave Gessel with the Utah Hospital Association.
Gessel said the association began surveying hospitals a few years ago and found a large spike in the number of assaults and an increase in their severity.
"We have seen a rise in people that for whatever reason are just not controlling their emotions or acting out and really hurting some providers," he said. "We don’t want providers to feel like they’re in an unsafe place."
In the latest survey, the association recorded 200 reports of assaults on health care workers from a handful of local hospitals — up from a few dozen a few years ago, Gessel said. He said the rise is likely due to better tracking, as well as an increase in patients with substance abuse problems or mental illnesses.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing assistants have the fifth-highest rate of workplace injuries and illnesses of any occupation — behind police officers, firefighters, highway maintenance workers and correctional officers. Nearly 4 percent of nursing assistants reported experiencing some kind of nonfatal workplace injury or illness.
Emergency medical technicians and paramedics rank seventh.
The Utah law increases the penalty for attacking a health care provider or emergency medical service worker from a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony if the person acts "intentionally or knowingly" and causes "substantial bodily injury" in the course of the worker's duties.
The law is not intended to target those who are mentally ill or unable to think clearly due to a medical condition or substance abuse.
Dr. Ram Nirula, chief of trauma at University of Utah Health Care, said it may be difficult to prove a patient’s intentions, particularly if they are under the influence of drugs or medication.
"Say somebody came in and they were high on meth and they attacked us," Nirula said. "Can that person be prosecuted for that as opposed to if we were to give them a medication and they started acting like that?"
Assaults on health care providers are “not uncommon” and more likely to happen in the emergency room or other emergency settings, according to Nirula. Still, he said he's unsure if angry or unstable patients are thinking about the consequences when they attack health care providers.
"I'm happy to see the bill is there because at least we know there will be some stiff ramifications to that kind of behavior," Nirula said. "As a health care worker, that's a comfort to me. But I'm not so sure that it will affect the frequency of that kind of behavior."
Jonathan Fitch, a paramedic with Unified Fire Authority, is no stranger to dealing with dangerous situations.
Fitch was hurt last year while trying to detain a man suspected of starting a fire in Millcreek Canyon. In the scuffle, Fitch and the man rolled down a mountain, and Fitch's knee was injured. After the knee injury developed into a pulmonary embolism, Fitch took several months off work to recover.
But Fitch said he hopes the law is used with discretion.
"Personally, I don't think giving them a felony is going to help," he said. "What they need to do is learn from their mistakes. A felony makes it hard to get a job, get into school. A felony follows you around."
Firefighters and paramedics are not trained in de-escalating situations but are trained in recognizing if someone may be under the influence or dealing with a medical emergency, according to Unified Fire Authority Capt. Dan Brown.
"When they're not thinking clearly, we don't hold that against them," Brown said.
He said the new law provides comfort to the fire department, especially since staffing levels have decreased over the years.
"We're definitely happy with it," Brown said. "In my personal opinion, for most people that assault us, it probably won't be a deterrent. But if it deters even a couple of people, it's worth it."