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Nurses say, 'Me too'

March 08, 2018
Nursing faculty members Gigi Smith and Joy Lauerer look at news reports they've gathered about workplace safety for nurses.

Two faculty members in the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina say they’re glad the “Me Too” movement is shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and assault. 

“It’s a top priority issue,” said Gigi Smith, executive associate dean for academics. “To me, it really comes under the umbrella of violence and trying to deal with that.” 

A recent Medscape poll found that about 70 percent of nurses say they’ve been harassed by a patient.

But sexual harassment is nothing new in nursing. The American Nurses Association issued a position statement more than 20 years ago saying nurses and nursing students have the right to work in a place free of sexual harassment. In 2015, the ANA set a zero tolerance policy for workplace violence and bullying.

Smith said the reality is that harassment has continued. "Even generational things, like a person who says, 'Hey honey, you look so cute,' and then taps a nurse's lower backside. I think in the past, a lot of nurses, as well as other health care providers, have just accepted it, but there is increased awareness that we can't anymore because we know it is offensive to the provider and can lead to other problems."

Joy Lauerer, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and advanced practice psychiatric-mental health nurse, said the "Me Too" movement has made that clear. "I think it is fresh for everybody as nurses have become more aware of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in our culture." 

She and Smith said the danger for nurses goes beyond harassment in some cases. A recent American Nurses Association report found more than 40 percent of nurses and nursing students had been verbally or physically threatened, 24 percent had been assaulted and 70 percent of emergency department nurses have been physically or verbally attacked by a patient.

Smith said there are a lot of factors behind the numbers. "Some of the reasons include lack of access to mental health care, changes in insurance coverage, increasing numbers of complex health issues in hospitals and the community and the large increase in substance misuse and abuse."

Nurses know they're often seeing people at their most vulnerable time, Smith said. "We have to think of the context, and what's going on. Skills nurses use include active listening and redirection."

Lauerer said the College of Nursing teaches students to set boundaries to protect themselves. "The students who come to MUSC are excited to be in the accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program, and faculty work hard to help them understand the culture of professional nursing and developing the professional role."

For example: "If someone gets too close to you, we talk about the 15-inch safety space to maintain with a patient," Lauerer said. "That's a good space if you want to have a therapeutic interaction and give them the sense that you're respectful."

Smith said it's also important for nursing students to learn about environmental safety and be aware of any changes in the mental status of patients and their family members. "Students and nurses being oriented to a new role must be informed and know where the exits are, where the doors are. Know the organization's protocol and numbers to call if there's an emergency." 

The goal for nurses is to keep everyone as safe as possible, Smith said, while doing their job. "Society focuses on nurses being a caring profession. Nursing is also a science that is evidence-based, and I think people forget that. Nurses are using their knowledge and skills to ensure best health outcomes for patients."

Smith said she'd like to see a law spelling out how employers and organizations should educate, train and respond to workplace harassment and violence against nurses. "In South Carolina, we have legislation for emergency room nurses, but not other nurses. The potential areas of trouble are not just the emergency department, but also the intensive care, psychiatric and behavioral health and labor and delivery areas. We need to protect nurses and all health care providers."

Both faculty members said they believe MUSC works to ensure conditions are as safe as possible for all employees and cited the organization's emphasis on a culture of safety for employees and students. Laurer said the College of Nursing continually reviews curriculum to ensure students get the training required to start their careers in nursing. "I feel really good about our graduates."

About the Author

Helen Adams