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When Physicians Are Attacked By Patients

This alarming story (h/t KevinMD) of a physician attacked by a drug-seeker reminded me of my intern year.  I worked in an inner city hospital in New York, and was scheduled to work in the “detox unit” for a full month. We interns had mixed feelings about our “detox month” – on the one hand, the patients were generally healthy and were unlikely to need blood draws, procedures, spinal taps, intubations, and such. This meant less work to do during our shifts. On the other hand, the patients were hardened drug users, often with a history of violence — and let’s just say that depleting the system of all the heroin, crack, alcohol, and various other substances didn’t tend to put them in the best mood.

I personally did not enjoy my detox month. I’d prefer a “crashing” ICU patient any day over a beligerant, hep C positive man trying to threaten me into giving him an additional dose of colace. And frankly, as a woman it was kind of scary to be around these guys. I never knew if they were going to snap, and no matter how many security guards are around, a lot of damage can happen in the 60 seconds or so it takes them to get to you.

One night the “detox resident” appeared for duty. His shift started at 11pm and the day shift nurses were eager to get home. The security guards were changing shift as well, and had not entered the lock-down area inside the unit. The resident went in alone. Suddenly, one of the patients snapped, and grabbed the unsuspecting doctor by the throat. The patient threw him up against the wall and punched him in the face, breaking his nose and fracturing his eye socket. Blood flew everywhere and the resident tried to fight back to defend himself. Unfortunately he was no match for the 250 pound patient, and sustained a few kicks to the ribs before the security guards were able to subdue the man. The resident was transferred off the detox unit rotation and given an extra week of vacation. I was the intern who was asked to fill in for him.

I felt somewhat paranoid that month, and refused to be inside the lock down area without a security guard within 15 feet of me. Fortunately, I was not physically attacked – I only experienced verbal abuse and the occasional very awkward conversation about genital deformities.

But it was a real wake up call for me – medicine can be a risky business, and white coats do not protect against psychotic aggression. I guess it’s just one of the risks we take in caring for all-comers.


Addendum: here’s another example of doctors being abused by narcotic-seekers.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “When Physicians Are Attacked By Patients”

  1. Ian Furst says:

    I’ve been punched once and seriously threatened with death twice (I can’t count the number of half hearted threats).   The last time the pt showed for a procedure drunk which I cancelled and he didn’t appreciate it.  I sent the letter back to the referring practitioner. 

     “Thank you for your referral of ….. for ….. He appeared to his consultation drunk and claimed to have had many beers before arrival.  When I cancelled his procedure Mr. X threatened to kill me.  As such I will no longer be able to provider care for him.  Once again, thank you for your kink referral.”   

    If you don’t laugh you’ll cry. 

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