Acension St. John in Tulsa was one of the several hospitals that received shooting threats after a man killed four people at Saint Francis on June 1, 2022. (Photo credit: Acension St. John)

For years before the Saint Francis shooting, health workers have experienced on-the-job violence at alarming rates.

And they say the pandemic has made it worse. One nationwide survey of nurses found 44 percent of theme experienced physical abuse on the job in early 2020.

  • Catherine Sweeney

Earlier this month, a man walked into a Saint Francis health care facility in Tulsa and shot four people before turning the gun on himself. A note explained he was targeting his doctor.*

Then, over the past few weeks, several people have been arrested for threatening to shoot more hospital workers. One man threatened to shoot workers at Saint Francis because he was angry over the food he was served, and that someone had lost his glasses, according to News on 6. Days after the Saint Francis shooting, a man threatened to shoot workers at Hillcrest, and then another man threatened to shoot doctors at Saint John, according to KFOR.

This problem — the threat of violence — isn’t new for those working in health care.

“Workforce violence is something that we’ve discussed at our board table for the last several years,” said Patti Davis, the president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in health care and social service sectors experience the most violence of any industry. Health care workers accounted for nearly three fourths of … violence-related workplace injuries and illness, while hospital workers six times more likely to suffer job violence than private sector workers as a whole.”

In hospitals, Davis says, health workers are seeing people who have traumatic brain injuries, or who are having bad drug interactions — people who otherwise wouldn’t be violent. But generally, health workers are seeing patients and their families at their most vulnerable, in high-stakes situations.

“It’s certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Davis said.

The American Hospital Association says both physical and verbal abuse have picked up since the beginning of 2020. It cites a paper by University of Virginia researchers, which surveyed nurses across the country on their experiences in the first months of the pandemic. It found 44 percent of them had experienced physical abuse on the job. Two thirds had experienced verbal abuse.
That’s not limited to hospital staff or nurses.

Morgan is a medical social worker for an Oklahoma hospice provider. We’re withholding her last name as she discusses her patients. She says tensions definitely picked up throughout the pandemic. Especially during major spikes, when hospitals and other care centers were severely strained. She says patients weren’t getting the facetime with doctors they usually would.

“Nobody’s sitting down and explaining to them what’s really happened, like maybe how serious their cancer is  — or whatever the diagnosis is,” she said. “And so they’re coming to hospice and they really have no idea what’s going on and where maybe the first time somebody is telling them that they’re going to die.”

She says the threat of violence is even scarier because of the kind of care she works in.

“I’m going into — into people’s homes and, you know, them just having a firearm potentially or kicking me out of their home or any situation,” she said. “This could go from 0 to 100 very quick… It seems silly, but I think if that’s what it comes down to, it makes me really rethink kind of how I approach people, and it makes you almost second-guess what you’re saying or what you’re doing.”

Davis says Oklahoma has taken some steps toward addressing the problem.

“There’s no single solution that will fix it all, she said. “But just know that it’s it’s a work in progress.”

That has included passing a law on health worker violence in 2020. It has several provisions. One increases the penalty for assault and battery of health workers, making it carry a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

The American Hospital Association is advocating for similar legislation — but with even harsher penalties. It mirrors protections for flight crews and airport workers. That law threatens anyone who interferes with those workers’ ability to do their jobs with up to 20 years in prison, and up to a life sentence for threatening them with a weapon.

Editor’s note: This story originally stated the shooter had been requesting more pain medication. According to Tulsa Police Department, he had been complaining of pain and requesting more treatment, but not specifically medication.