A national study of workplace aggression in Australian clinical medical practice

A national study of workplace aggression in Australian clinical medical practice
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  Research MJA197 (6)·17 September 2012  336  The Medical Journal of Australia ISSN:0025- 729X 17 September 2012 197 6336-340 ©The Medical Journal of Australia   orkplace aggression is a worldwide concern thathas been linked toimpaired physical and mentalhealth. 1-4 There is limited interna-tional research describing the extentand impact of workplace aggressionin medicine, however, and the few  Australian studies have primarily focused on general practitioner expe-riences of patient aggression. 5-8 Thereare no comprehensive data on work-place aggression in Australia, and workplace aggression is considered tobe grossly underreported by health workers. 9 ,10 In the absence of compre-hensive data, legislators and policy-makers have to rely on anecdote,opinion, ideology or poor-quality evi-dence, where it exists, to inform deci-sion making. 11 Currently, the researchliterature appears to be the most relia-ble source of data on workplaceaggression in Australia.This article describes results fromthe first national study of workplaceaggression experienced by the majorsubpopulations of clinical medicalpractitioners in Australia. The study aimed to determine the 12-monthprevalence of verbal or writtenaggression and physical aggressionfrom patients, patients’ relatives orcarers, coworkers and others externalto the workplace. Differences in prev-alence by sex, age, postgraduate expe-rience and international medicalgraduate (IMG) status were alsoexamined. Methods This exploratory–descriptive study   was conductedbet ween March 2010 and June 2011, in the third wave of theMedicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life (MABEL) sur- vey. Eight workplace aggression prev-alence items were included inquestionnaires tailored for GPs andGP registrars, specialists, hospitalnon-specialists and specialists intraining. Questionnaire items weretested in the pilot phase of the sur- vey. 12 The sampling frame was theMedical Directory of Australia (MDA),a comprehensive database of 59144 Australian medical practitioners, 13 asaccessed in February and May 2010.Of these, 16327 (27.6%) were sur- veyed in accordance with the MABELprotocol. 14 Invitees comprised con-tactable respondents from previous waves of the MABEL survey (12068)and clinical medical practitioners new to or re-entering the MDA by May 2010 (4259). The study was approvedby the University of Melbourne Fac-ulty of Economics and CommerceHuman Ethics Advisory Group andthe Monash University Standing Committee on Ethics in ResearchInvolving Humans. Variables used  A range of demographic and otherprofile data were collected, including doctor type, sex, age, IMG status, andlocation by state and AustralianStandard Geographic Classification of remoteness. 15 Years elapsed sincemedical graduation was also deter-mined. Estimates of the frequency of aggression from patients, patients’relatives or carers, coworkers and oth-ers external to the workplace wereelicited with a five-point, ordinalresponse scale: “Frequently (once ormore each week)”, “Often (a few times each month)”, “Occasionally (afew times each 6 months)”, “Infre-quently (a few times in 12 months)”and “Not at all”. Workplace aggres-sion was defined in survey question-naires as: any workplace aggressiondirected toward you in the last 12 A national study of workplace aggressionin Australian clinical medical practice W Research Objective: To describe the 12-month prevalence of verbal or written andphysical aggression from patients, patients’ relatives or carers, coworkers andothers in Australian clinical medical practice. Design, setting and participants: An exploratory, descriptive study of cross-sectional survey design in the third wave (March 2010 to June 2011) of theMedicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life longitudinal survey. Main outcome measures: Proportions of clinicians reporting verbal or writtenand physical aggression from each aggression source and the significance ofdifferences reported by doctor type, sex, international medical graduate status,age and postgraduate experience. Results: Of 16327 medical practitioners sampled, a response rate of 60.9%(9951) was achieved and 9449 (57.9%) were in Australian clinical practice.Participants comprised 3515 general practitioners and GP registrars, 3875specialists, 1171 hospital non-specialists and 888 specialists in training. Overall,70.6% of medical practitioners experienced verbal or written aggression and32.3% experienced physical aggression from one or more sources in theprevious 12 months. While patterns of exposure were complex, more femaleclinicians, international medical graduates (IMGs) and hospital-based cliniciansexperienced workplace aggression. Age and postgraduate experience weresignificantly negatively associated with aggression exposure. Conclusions: This is the first nationwide study of workplace aggression from allsources experienced by all subpopulations of Australian medical clinicians. Thefindings suggest particular risks for younger and more junior hospital-basedclinicians, and for IMGs in general practice. A failure to address this importantprofessional and public health concern may contribute to ongoing challenges inthe recruitment and retention of medical practitioners in an era of increasingshortages internationally. Abstract Danny J Hills BN, GradCertMgt,MN(Hons),Doctoral Scholar 1 Catherine M Joyce BA(Hons), MPsych, PhD,Associate Professor 1 John S Humphreys BA(Hons), DipEd, PhD,Emeritus Professor 2 1 Department of Epidemiologyand Preventive Medicine,Monash University,Melbourne, VIC. 2 School of Rural Health,Monash University,Bendigo, VIC. MJA 2012; 197:336–340 doi: 10.5694/mja12.10444  Research  337 MJA197 (6)·17 September 2012 months while you were working in medicine (ie, any circumstanceor location in which you per-formed your role as a medicalpractitioner), including: Verbal or written abuse, threats,intimidation or harassment   —  such as ridicule, abusive emails,racism, bullying, contemptuoustreatment and non-physicalthreats or intimidation.  Physical threats, intimidation,harassment or violence —    such asa raised hand or object,unwanted touching, damage toproperty and sexual or otherphysical assault. Statistical analyses The profile of respondents (doctortype, sex, age, state and rurality) wascompared with the 2010 profile of MDA clinicians. Sampling bias wasassessed with the Pearson  2 test of independence for categorical variables(doctor type, sex, state and rurality)and the independent t  test for age. Aggression prevalence data weresummarised by percentages. Sum-mary rates of verbal or written aggres-sion and physical aggression wereindicated with binomial (Clopper–Pearson) confidence intervals. Thestatistical significance of differences indistributions of reported aggressionby doctor type, sex and IMG status was determined with the Kruskal– Wallis test (corrected for tied ranks).The statistical significance of associa-tions between age, years elapsed sincegraduation and aggression prevalence was determined with Spearman rankcorrelation. Results  A response rate of 60.9% (9951) wasachieved, with 57.9% (9449) of inviteesindicating that they worked in clinicalpractice in Australia. Comparisons of the study sample and national profilesare shown in Box 1 (doctor type, Stateand rurality) and Box 2 (sex and meanage, by doctor type). While statistically significant (  P <0.001), except for meanage for male hospital non-specialists,the differences between the sampleand the national profiles suggest only aslight bias toward specialist, Victorian,non-metropolitan, female and younger clinicians.Overall, 70.6% (95% CI, 69.7%–71.5%) of clinicians reported experi-encing verbal or written aggression,and 32.3% (95% CI, 31.3%–33.3%)reported experiencing physicalaggression from one or more sourcesin the previous 12 months. As shownin Box 3, exposure levels varied by source, form and doctor type. There were statistically significant differ-ences (  P <0.01) between aggressionprevalence from each source reportedby doctor type. Verbal aggressionfrom each source was reported by upto one-and-a-half times the propor-tion of hospital non-specialists andspecialists in training compared withGPs and specialists, and up to twotimes for physical aggression fromeach source.Differences by clinicians’ sex werealso identified (Box 4). Overall, 69.1%(95% CI, 67.9%–70.4%) of male clini-cians reported experiencing verbal or written aggression in the previous 12months from one or more sourcescompared with 72.6% (95% CI,71.1%–73.9%) of female clinicians, while 31.2% (95% CI, 30.0%–32.5%)of male clinicians reported experienc-ing physical aggression in the previ-ous 12 months from one or moresources compared with 33.8% (95%CI, 32.3%–35.3%) of female clini-cians. The differences, however, wereunevenly spread across aggressionsources for each doctor type (Box 4).The distribution of aggression prev-alence for IMGs differed from that of  Australian medical school graduates(non-IMGs) for some sources andforms of aggression. This was espe-cially so for GPs and GP registrars inrelation to verbal or written aggres-sion from patients (IMGs, 63.1% v non-IMGs, 52.3%;  P <0.001), andphysical aggression from patients’ rela-tives or carers (14.8% v 11.8%;  P <0.05), coworkers (5.7% v 3.9%;  P <0.05) and others external to the workplace (8.8% v 6.6%;  P <0.05). Incontrast, fewer IMG than non-IMGhospital non-specialists reported expe-riencing physical aggression frompatients (36.6% v 49.0%;  P <0.05) onceor more in the previous 12 months. Age and years since graduation were strongly correlated (  =0.968;  P <0.001) across all doctor types. Both variables, almost identically, werenegatively though weakly associated with the reported frequency of work-place aggression from each source inthe previous 12 months (Box 5). Thispattern was replicated for individualdoctor types, but the statistical signifi-cance of associations disappeared forhospital non-specialists and special-ists in training. Discussion This national study of workplaceaggression in Australian clinical med-ical practice demonstrates that, formany doctors, workplace aggressionis inherent in clinical practice. Extra-polated to the population level, thestudy results suggest that about38000 medical clinicians would haveexperienced one or more episodes of  verbal or written aggression andabout 18000 would have experiencedone or more episodes of physicalaggression in 12 months. While many clinicians reported aggression asinfrequent (a few times in 12 months),more frequent incidents werereported by 15%–44% of cliniciansexperiencing written or verbal aggres-sion and 11%–32% experiencing physical aggression. 1 Profile of survey respondents compared with nationalprofile, by doctor type, state and rurality, March 2010 –June 2011 MABEL=Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life.MDA=Medical Directory of Australia, accessed May 2010. 13  GP=general practitioner. ACT=Australian Capital Territory.NSW=New South Wales. NT=Northern Territory. Qld=Queensland.SA=South Australia. Tas=Tasmania. Vic=Victoria.WA=Western Australia. * P <0.001 for categories (not subcategories). ◆ No. of respondents (%)Category*Wave 3 MABEL surveyMDA Doctor type944959144GP and GP registrar3515 (37.2%)23298 (39.4%)Specialist3875 (41.0%)21131 (35.7%)Hospitalnon-specialist1171 (12.4%)9669 (16.4%)Specialist in training888 (9.4%)5046 (8.5%)State944959144ACT177 (1.9%)1043 (1.8%)NSW2550 (27.0%)19315 (32.7%)NT102 (1.1%)382 (0.7%)Qld1707 (18.1%)10747 (18.2%)SA748 (7.9%)4516 (7.6%)Tas309 (3.3%)1728 (2.9%)Vic2882 (30.5%)15923 (26.9%)WA974 (10.3%)5490 (9.3%)Rurality939959144Major city7142 (76.0%)48039 (81.2%)Inner regional1493 (15.9%)8012 (13.6%)Outer regional542 (5.8%)2632 (4.5%)Remote161 (1.7%)357 (0.6%)Very remote61 (0.7%)104 (0.2%)  Research MJA197 (6)·17 September 2012  338 There are few comparable studieson workplace aggression in clinicalmedical practice, not only in relationto the scale and scope of the research,but also because of differences in def-initions, terminologies and recall peri-ods employed by researchers.Nevertheless, consistent with thebroader health care literature, 4 ,16-19 patients were the most commonsource of aggression, followed by aggression from patients’ relatives orcarers, and prevalence rates for non-physical aggression were generally one-and-a-half to four times that forphysical aggression. For GPs and GPregistrars, the prevalence of verbalaggression from patients (54.9%) wasconsistent with outcomes from previ-ous Australian research (42%–58%),but the prevalence of physical aggres-sion was much higher (23.4% v 2%–6%). 5-8 Coworkers were the thirdmost common source of aggressionoverall. Prevalence rates for coworker verbal aggression (14.8%–44.3%) andphysical aggression (4.3%–13.0%) were much higher than for UnitedKingdom clinicians, where less than5% experienced verbal aggression andless than 1% experienced physicalaggression from coworkers in the pre- vious 12 months. 20 ,21 Of particular importance is thefinding that workplace aggressionprevalence for the primarily hospital-based, younger and less experiencedhospital non-specialists and special-ists in training was up to twice that forGPs or specialists. Other studies sug- 3Proportions of medical practitioners reporting workplace aggression within the previous 12 months, by doctor type and source of aggression,March 2010 – June 2011 (  n =9449) GPs and GP registrarsSpecialistsHospital non-specialistsSpecialists in training 0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100% Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical PatientPatient's relativeor carerCoworkerOther externalto workplace Occasionally to frequentlyInfrequentlyNot at all     P   r   o   p   o   r    t    i   o   n   r   e   p   o   r    t    i   n   g   a   g   g   r   e   s   s    i   o   n 0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100% Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical PatientPatient's relativeor carerCoworkerOther externalto workplace Occasionally to frequentlyInfrequentlyNot at all     P   r   o   p   o   r    t    i   o   n   r   e   p   o   r    t    i   n   g   a   g   g   r   e   s   s    i   o   n 0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100% Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical PatientPatient's relativeor carerCoworkerOther externalto workplace Occasionally to frequentlyInfrequentlyNot at all     P   r   o   p   o   r    t    i   o   n   r   e   p   o   r    t    i   n   g   a   g   g   r   e   s   s    i   o   n 0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100% Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical Verbal orwrittenPhysical PatientPatient's relativeor carerCoworkerOther externalto workplace Occasionally to frequentlyInfrequentlyNot at all     P   r   o   p   o   r    t    i   o   n   r   e   p   o   r    t    i   n   g   a   g   g   r   e   s   s    i   o   n 2Profile of survey respondents compared with national profile (age and sex), by doctor type, March 2010– June 2011 MABEL=Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life. MDA=Medical Directory of Australia, accessed May 2010. 13  GP=general practitioner. * P <0.001 for all subcategories except male hospital non-specialist, which was not significant. ◆ Wave 3 MABEL surveyMDADoctor type and sex*No.ProportionMean age, years(SD)No.ProportionMean age, years(SD) GP and GP registrar351423279Men51.6%52.9 (11.5)60.7%55.0 (11.1)Women48.4%46.3 (9.9)39.3%49.1 (10.0)Specialist386721123Men69.1%52.4 (10.7)77.8%54.5 (11.0)Women30.9%46.8 (8.8)22.2%48.9 (9.5)Hospital non-specialist11709644Men42.1%33.4 (10.4)51.2%34.1 (8.5)Women58.0%30.4 (7.5)48.8%32.1 (7.5)Specialist in training8875037Men47.6%34.0 (5.9)58.5%37.2 (6.5)Women52.4%33.5 (6.2)41.5%36.5 (6.6)Total943859083Men57.2%49.4 (12.8)65.0%51.3 (12.9)Women42.8%42.3 (11.1)35.0%44.1 (11.7)  Research  339 MJA197 (6)·17 September 2012 gest that hospital-based medical work is a greater risk for workplaceaggression than community-basedpractice, 7,22,23 no doubt related tohigher levels of patient acuity, stressand distress. Other research evidencesupports the contention that youngerand less experienced medical practi-tioners are at higher risk of workplaceaggression than older and more expe-rienced clinicians. 5,8,24 Hospital non-specialists and spe-cialists in training are about 15 to 25 years younger and comprise rela-tively more female clinicians com-pared with specialists. They are morelikely to be afforded lower status in“a pecking order of seniority”. 25 They are also likely to be less skilled orexperienced in aggression minimisa-tion and de-escalation, particularly  where the perpetrators are moresenior personnel or clinical col-leagues. Clearly, greater institutionalefforts are required to enhance theaggression minimisation skills of doctors who are new to clinical prac-tice, and to reduce both the preva-lence and impact of workplaceaggression. With the exception of coworkeraggression, female GPs experiencedsignificantly less aggression from allother sources than male clinicians.This contrasts with other studiesshowing that female GPs experiencedmore bullying, gender-based or sexualaggression. 5-8 In addition, all femaleclinicians experienced lower rates of aggression from others external to the workplace. This suggests that, wherenon-clinically or non-professionally related aggression arises in the work-place, male clinicians are more oftenthe target of, or more often at theforefront of dealing with, such inci-dents. The finding that more femalethan male specialists in training report verbal or written and physical aggres-sion from patients and verbal or writ-ten aggression from patients’ relativesor carers suggests a particular risk for junior female clinicians.IMGs in general practice appearmore vulnerable to workplace aggres-sion. While previous Australian quali-tative research suggests that someindividual cultural and communica-tion issues may serve as triggers foraggression, 26 overall there has been alack of research investigating IMGexperiences of workplace aggression.More research is clearly warranted,since IMGs have an important role inefforts to ensure Australia has suffi-cient medical practitioners to main-tain medical care in non-metropolitancommunities and areas of workforceshortages.The importance of workplaceaggression in medicine cannot beunderestimated. Beyond individualphysical and mental health effects, 1-4 there is evidence of the greater impactof the more prevalent non-physicalforms of aggression on work partici-pation decisions. 18 Doctors exposed to workplace aggression have reported aloss of confidence or enthusiasm fortreating patients 20 ,21 and increasedmedical errors. 27 A failure to reducethe prevalence and impact of work-place aggression, especially for younger clinicians and IMGs, may also contribute to ongoing challengesin the recruitment and retention of medical practitioners in this era of increasing workforce shortages inter-nationally. 28 There are some limitations to thisstudy. Sampling biases may have con-tributed to the prevalence of work-place aggression being slightly overestimated for non-metropolitan,specialist and female clinicians, andslightly underestimated for hospitalnon-specialists. However, self-selection 4Proportions of medical practitioners reporting workplace aggression within the previous 12 months,by doctor type, form of aggression, doctor’s sex and source of aggression, March 2010 – June 2011(  n =9449) GP=general practitioner. *Aggregated percentages of reported aggression experienced infrequently, occasionally, often andfrequently. † P <0.001 (Kruskal–Wallis test for ordinal distributions, corrected for tied ranks). ‡ P <0.01 (Kruskal–Wallis test forordinal distributions, corrected for tied ranks). § P <0.05 (Kruskal–Wallis test for ordinal distributions, corrected for tied ranks). ◆ Source of aggression (%)*Doctor typeForm ofaggression Doctor sexPatientPatient’srelative or carerCoworkerOther externalto workplace GP and GP registrarVerbal or writtenMen57.1% † 43.1% † 14.4%19.5% † Women52.6%36.1%15.3%15.0%PhysicalMen24.8% ‡ 14.5% † 4.8%8.2% ‡ Women20.4%10.5%3.7%5.8%SpecialistVerbal or writtenMen48.3%43.8% § 27.6% ‡ 20.5% § Women51.9%48.5%31.8%17.5%PhysicalMen22.0%17.0%6.2%9.0% § Women25.2%18.2%7.3%6.8%Hospital non-specialistVerbal or writtenMen79.3%69.2%43.0%26.9% † Women76.2%69.5%45.3%18.8%PhysicalMen49.0%33.9%15.1% ‡ 15.7% † Women46.7%28.7%8.9%9.3%Specialist in trainingVerbal or writtenMen71.3% § 63.7% ‡ 41.8%23.6%Women72.9%70.6%44.4%19.7%PhysicalMen37.6% § 28.6%13.5%13.3% § Women44.4%35.1%12.6%8.5% 5Association between medical practitioner age, years since graduation and frequency of workplace aggression within theprevious 12 months, by source of aggression, March 2010 – June 2011* PatientPatient’s relativeor carerCoworkerOther externalto workplaceVariableVerbalor writtenPhysicalVerbalor writtenPhysicalVerbalor writtenPhysicalVerbalor writtenPhysical Age  0.237  0.193  0.224  0.168  0.182  0.091  0.057  0.067Years since graduation  0.239  0.199  0.224  0.168  0.189  0.098  0.060  0.069 *Spearman rank correlation coefficient; P <0.001. ◆  Research MJA197 (6)·17 September 2012  340 bias by those who had experiencedaggression was minimised, as aggres-sion items were a small component of the questionnaires. Although a defini-tion of workplace aggression was pro- vided, responses were subject toclinicians’ own perceptions of experi-encing aggression from each source.Recall bias was minimised, as ques-tionnaire items elicited estimates of exposure in a range, rather than exactfrequencies. Finally, more complexinterrelationships between variables,and the assessment of impact andcausality, were not investigated in thisstudy.The results of this national cross-sectional study of Australian medicalclinicians indicate that workplaceaggression in medicine is a significantprofessional, occupational safety andpublic health issue. The outcomesprovide important baseline data andan impetus for ongoing research intothis phenomenon in clinical medi-cine, both in Australia and interna-tionally. The research also provides animportant body of evidence for legis-lators, policymakers, health servicesand the medical profession in devel-oping strategies that may more effec-tively prevent and minimise work-place aggression in medical practicesettings. Competing interests: No relevant disclosures. Received 4 Mar 2012, accepted 5 Jul 2012. 1 Mayhew C, Chappell D. Workplace violence: anoverview of patterns of risk and the emotional/stress consequences on targets. Int J Law Psychiatry  2007; 30: 327-339. 2 di Martino V. Workplace violence in the healthsector. Country case studies: Brazil, Bulgaria,Lebanon, Portugal, South Africa, Thailand and anadditional Australian study. Synthesis report.Geneva: Joint Programme on Workplace Violencein the Health Sector, 2002. (accessed Jul 2012). 3 di Martino V. Workplace violence in the healthsector: relationship between work stress andworkplace violence in the health sector. 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