Healthcare facilities see rising crime rates

Feb. 4, 2013
Researcher says violence in hospitals a reflection of the current culture

Incidents of crime at healthcare facilities across the U.S. are on the rise, according to the results of a new survey. The 2012 Crime and Security Trends Survey, which was underwritten by the Foundation of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety (IAHSS) and based on online responses from 208 member healthcare organizations, found that the number of crimes increased by nearly 37 percent in just two years from just under 15,000 in 2010 to more than 20,500 in 2012.

Crimes at healthcare facilities increased in nearly every category including simple assaults, larceny and thefts, vandalism, rape and sexual assaults. There were also eight homicides reported among member facilities in 2012, the highest number ever recorded in the survey. In fact, 98 percent of healthcare facilities now experience violence and criminal incidents.

“What we know in the healthcare setting is that crimes have been on the increase for a number of years,” said researcher and survey author Dr. Victoria Mikow-Porto.

While these figures are striking, Porto, who serves as principal and CEO of North Carolina-based Research & Policy Analytics, believes that the rise in violence being experienced at hospitals and clinics is a reflection of our increasingly violent culture. Last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there was a 17 percent increase in violent crime between 2010 and 2011, changing what had been a steady decline in violent crime levels since 1993.

“Actually, I was really quite surprised at the data this year,” said Porto. “And, of course, I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of crimes that take place in healthcare facilities are simple and aggravated assaults, thefts, larceny and those sorts of things, but the increase in homicides is particularly alarming to me.”

Among some of the primary factors contributing to this epidemic, according to Mikow-Porto include:

  • Greater access to weapons, especially guns
  • Open access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as an expanding number of small and large healthcare complexes
  • Long wait times in emergency rooms
  • Disputes among gang members which spill into healthcare environments
  • Cutbacks in state corrections budgets and the subsequent increase in treatment of forensic patients
  • A rise in substance abuse and easily accessed hospital pharmacies

In some circumstances, Porto said that security may be at odds with the business of running a hospital. For example, she cited an article recently published by the Los Angeles Times in which Los Angeles County decided to remove metal detectors from several hospitals to make them more appealing to patients.   

“There is a fundamental competing philosophy in healthcare between the security profession and the economic interests of healthcare facilities,” she explained. “There are two philosophies that operate. One is that security professionals try to create an environment of safety for staff, patients and the general public. On the other hand, many hospital facilities try to make themselves look very attractive.”  

Even more disturbing than this increased number of violent crimes in hospitals is the fact that many incidents may be going unreported. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that at least half of all crimes are not reported. To get a full and accurate picture of hospital crime rates, Porto is proposing legislations that would, at least temporarily, reduce liability for healthcare facilities.

“One thing I have suggested for some time now is perhaps as a short-run attempt to get a whole picture on what’s going on… is to create something like the Clery Act,” she said. “I think the issue of liability is an absolutely critical one and explains in large measure why people are reluctant to report (crimes).”

IAHSS President Lisa Pryse also believes that liability concerns, as the potential for bad publicity has kept many healthcare facilities from participating in surveys like these.

“It is important to note that there are thousands of healthcare facilities in the U.S. and Canada alone which did not participate,” said Pryse. “Although the participating facilities are cloaked in anonymity, many facilities often do not participate in the crime survey due to concerns regarding potential liability and negative marketing.” 

To help curb some of these incidents, Porto recommends that healthcare facilities be more vigilant when it comes to surveillance of people on their premises, the use of restraints on patients who may be a high-risk for being violent, the use of metal detectors, and the training security personnel in de-escalation tactics.

“I think this data is very useful in helping (healthcare organizations) analyze their own facilities,” Porto said. “I think it shows that perhaps hospital administrators are not aware of or taking into account the need to hire more security professionals. If you reduce the number of metal detectors that have been clearly shown to reduce incidents of violence by identifying people carrying weapons, then you’re going to increase the likelihood of violent incidents occurring.”  

Despite these alarming statistics, Pryse pointed out that vast majority of hospitals and clinics are still safe. However, she said this data reinforces the need for healthcare facilities to invest in security.    

“It is very important for the public to know that overall, hospitals and healthcare facilities are still safe places to be. Hospitals do, however, reflect the activities of a society at large, albeit a more violent one today.  It is with this knowledge now, more than ever before healthcare organizations must invest in security and safety,” Pryse explained. “In addition to performing in-depth security assessments (in order to detect some initial security gaps), membership and alignment with healthcare security organizations (such as IAHSS) is extremely important. Membership and participation with an organization like IAHSS provides industry guidelines, officer and supervisor training programs, mitigation strategies, current trending research, and legal and regulatory information for healthcare security among other things.