Grace Deng

(Washington State Examiner) Assaults on staff by patients surged last year at one of Washington’s state-owned psychiatric hospitals, although just two individuals were responsible for nearly 20% of the attacks, according to a new report.

At Eastern State Hospital, which is located near Spokane and treats adult psychiatric patients, assaults on staff rose 63% from 2021 to 2022, from 51 to 83. One patient committed seven of the assaults and another eight of them. Data from the first few months of 2023 show half of the 20 reported assaults occurred in one ward; of those, 80% involved the same patient.

The figures are part of a state Department of Social and Health Services report to the Legislature on efforts to reduce violence in state hospitals. At other facilities, compensation claims due to assaults and time off spent recovering from injuries from the incidents were up.

SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents 437 nurses across the three hospitals covered in the report, said they appreciate recent efforts made by the state to reduce violence — but the data “is very concerning and cannot be ignored.”

“We call for meaningful, immediate investments in staffing and for a collaborative effort between the Department and our union to examine the root causes of workplace violence,” said Jane Hopkins, president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW.

Violent incidents at Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest adult psychiatric hospital, climbed between 2016 and 2020 before falling in 2021 and 2022. But lost staff time due to injuries in 2022 was still more than twice what it was five years earlier.

Officials have been working to move patients out of the facility, which has been the target of lawsuits and is in line for a nearly $1 billion rebuild.

At the state’s only psychiatric hospital for children and youth, the Child Study and Treatment Center, reported assaults also decreased from 2021 to 2022. However, assaults that resulted in a compensation claim increased — and so did compensation claims with payouts.

During that same time period, time off spent recovering from injuries increased by around 62% at the Child Study and Treatment Center.

The center said the violence at its facilities may be attributed to “a growing population of patients diagnosed with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities,” according to the report.

Violence at state psychiatric hospitals isn’t anything new. For years, employees at the hospitals have raised safety concerns for both patients and staff.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social and Health Services, Tyler Hemstreet, said the state continues to struggle with staffing. Increased rates of overtime and retention problems are also “ongoing challenges” listed in the report.

The state has a number of ongoing initiatives meant to improve workplace safety in its hospitals, including personal safety training for staff, upgrades to  wards and establishing a major incident reporting system.

“We are the end of the line for a lot of these patients,” Hemstreet said. “They can’t be treated in private facilities because of the complex nature of what they’re going through. It’s a very difficult job and we’re doing as many things as we can.”