Providence Health Care has added a dog and a handler to its security team in response to a reported increase in violence against health care workers locally and nationally.
Sarge, a 16-month-old German shepherd born in the Czech Republic, was hand-picked for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and already has been deployed twice to help defuse volatile situations at the hospital.
Providence officials, who held a news conference Tuesday to introduce Sarge, said he’s the first K-9 unit at a hospital in Washington, though a growing number of U.S. health care facilities use dogs to sniff out contraband, deter violence and apprehend threatening suspects.
Providence also uses security dogs at its hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. They’re trained like the dogs used by law enforcement.
“Their primary role here is to keep caregivers, patients and visitors safe,” said Ryan Nelson, director of security for Providence. “We know that having a visible K-9 unit does provide an extra sense of security for staff.”
Sarge’s handler is Pat McKenna, a former patrol sergeant with the Idaho Falls Police Department. Providence officials said a second dog, a Belgian Malinois, is in training and will begin patrolling the hallways of Sacred Heart and other Spokane-area facilities this spring.
Providence officials said the dogs could be used to apprehend suspects by biting them, but they insisted such incidents would be rare in a relatively controlled environment like the hospital, where human security staff can handle most of the work. More often the dogs will be used a “deterrent,” officials said.
“Our No. 1 concern in starting this program was that violence against our health care workers is on the rise, particularly in the last five years,” said Peg Currie, chief operating officer of Providence.
Some Sacred Heart nurses complained that assaults were becoming more common because of understaffing several years ago, while their union was fighting Providence for a more generous contract.
In one troubling incident in March 2016, a patient at Sacred Heart sneaked up on a nurse, held her arms and tried to suffocate her by placing sanitation wipes over her mouth and nose. She yelled for help 10 times before other staff arrived to assist her. Court records said the patient had been suffering from hallucinations and hadn’t been responding to his medications.
“Frequently, we’re having nurses punched in the face, kicked, bitten,” one nurse told The Spokesman-Review in June of that year. “We are chronically short-staffed.”
On Tuesday, Providence officials said patients and visitors sometimes become aggressive because they’re on drugs, experiencing a mental health crisis or have a cognitive disability such as dementia.
“They get upset, they’re out of their normal, routine environment, and they will pull hair or they will punch someone,” Currie said.
But, Currie said, the mere presence of a security dog can prevent situations from getting out of hand.
“The unpredictability of the dog makes them calm down,” she said.
Providence officials pointed to research showing that reported instances of violence against health care workers are on the rise nationally. They said no other profession, except law enforcement, is exposed to so much violence. They said they have begun collecting data about incidents at Providence facilities but declined to share those numbers.
“At Providence, our work to encourage caregivers to report incidents of workplace violence has been successful,” spokeswoman Liz DeRuyter said in an email. “We believe that the programs we have in place have helped reduce the severity of the incidents.”
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