Responding to verbal abuse
Thomas A. Dombrowsky MSN

November 2012 
Volume 42  Number 11
Pages 58 - 61
  PDF Version Available!

CONSIDERED A FORM of horizontal violence, verbal abuse is a common problem in healthcare facilities. The abuser may be a patient, family member, physician, or other healthcare provider. It can even be another nurse.1 This article will review what verbal abuse is, how it affects patient care, and how to properly deal with it when it happens.Verbal abuse is speech that's intended to humiliate or embarrass the target. The recipient feels humiliated, disrespected, and devalued. It includes yelling, making belittling comments, cursing, name calling, and threats.2In a survey of 950 healthcare workers, researchers found that 82% of respondents witnessed dysfunctional behaviors at least weekly. Examples included harsh criticism, public belittling, third-party complaints, offensive eye movements (eye rolling), and pretending not to notice when a coworker was overwhelmed. Consequences of the abuse reported in the survey included feeling discouraged from lack of positive feedback, leaving work with bad feelings, being afraid to speak out, failing to ask questions for fear of ridicule, and experiencing physical symptoms, such as headaches, sleep disturbance, or pain.3Besides hurting the nurse, verbal abuse also can adversely affect the quality of patient care. It's a major contributor to burnout and can put barriers between the nurse and patient.2,4 If a patient is verbally abusive, the nurse may become wary of the patient and spend only a minimum amount of time with the patient, compromising communication and care.When the abuser is a healthcare provider, all of his or her patients can be harmed. Over time, nurses may become reluctant to call the abusive healthcare provider and call only when absolutely necessary. Patients of other healthcare providers can also be affected if the abusive healthcare provider happens to be on call.Consequences for the hospital itself include increased staff turnover and decreased patient-satisfaction scores. Hospitals are mandated to provide a healthy

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