Emergency department threat spike is complex, Warrnambool Base Hospital staff say

Explained: South West Healthcare emergency services director Jo Brown, nurse Cathreena Gervis and acting nurse unit manager Julie Dawson. Picture: Rob Gunstone
Explained: South West Healthcare emergency services director Jo Brown, nurse Cathreena Gervis and acting nurse unit manager Julie Dawson. Picture: Rob Gunstone

An increase in violent and aggressive behaviour at Warrnambool Base Hospital’s emergency department is not strongly linked to illicit drugs, staff say.

South West Healthcare emergency services director Jo Brown explained the complex factors that have led to a 23.5 per cent rise in reports of violence and aggression towards staff in the past two years.

This week, the hospital received a $350,000 grant from the state government to create a new area to treat people with behavioural issues and for extra security staff.

However, despite some media reports focusing on potential links between drugs and alcohol and an increase in threats to staff, Dr Brown said it was more complex than that.

“People have always become angry and upset in emergency departments because bad things happen here,” she said.

“People die here, people get sick here, people get bad news here and so that’s always happened and we take a lot of steps to try to contain that.

“With the issue of demand outweighing supply a little bit, in terms of space and other things, people have to wait longer and they often feel angry that they’re not being heard or their needs are not being met properly.”

Last year The Standardreported the hospital’s emergency department had outgrown its capacity, pushing staff to the limit.

In the May budget, the state government allocated $7.5 million to begin works on a project that would upgrade the department.

Dr Brown said police bringing an increasing number of people to the emergency department and it becoming routine for people with acute mental health issues to seek treatment there all played a role in an increase in “code grey” incidents at the hospital – where staff felt there was a threat to safety. Those incidents usually occurred once or twice a week.

She said it was important to recognise that a lot of aggressive or violent behaviour was linked to patients’ health issues, not just drugs or alcohol.

“That’s the most common aggressive behaviour incident in hospitals, that the mental health or the physical health affecting patients, who believe in a different set of realities at the time.”