Personal Safety Apps for Better Protecting Nurses in the Community

Protecting nurses in the community from workplace violence by providing them with personal safety apps should be a high priority for healthcare organizations due to the number of home healthcare workers leaving the industry and a shortage of new recruits to replace them. 

According to a 2018 report published on Forbes.com, there is a chronic shortage of community nurses and home healthcare workers due to low wages, inconsistent work schedules, and workplace violence. At the time the report was published, it forecast a staffing crisis in the next few years due to the aging population and an unfriendly immigration policy that restricted the number of new recruits available to replace community nurses leaving the industry. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many physical procedures were replaced by telemedicine. However, virtual home healthcare visits are not covered by Medicare; so physical visits continued – resulting in many community nurses contracting the virus. Colleagues who stepped up to fill vacant visiting slots subsequently found the workloads overwhelming – so much so that an April 2020 survey reported 62% of respondents were planning to leave their jobs – or the profession altogether.

The Issue of Workplace Violence in Community Nursing

Some of the issues creating the staffing crisis in community nursing are easier to resolve than others. For example, it would not be difficult to better reward home healthcare nurses for the work they do in the community. Resolving the issue of filling vacant visiting slots due to staff illnesses will be much harder until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is available. The issue of better protecting nurses in the community from workplace violence falls somewhere between the two – but where?

Nobody knows the extent of workplace violence in community nursing due to underreporting – an issue noted in OSHA´s Workplace Violence in Healthcare Report (PDF) – and while some underreporting is attributed to an “it´s part of the job” culture, OSHA notes it could also be due to the lack of a reporting policy, lack of faith in the reporting system, and fear of retaliation when reporting violence by colleagues. To address the issue, HHS published a guide for “How to Prevent Violence on the Job” (PDF).

Inasmuch as the guide has good intentions, its recommendations are difficult to implement. Employers are advised to establish zero-tolerance policies for all incidents of violence, train home healthcare workers on recognizing and preventing workplace violence, investigate all reports of workplace violence, and work with the police to identify neighborhoods in which special precautions should be taken. The administrative burden alone is more than many healthcare organizations have resources for.

Relieving the Administrative Burden with Personal Safety Apps

One solution used by some healthcare organizations is personal safety apps. These mobile phone apps can help address the issues believed to be responsible for underreporting (lack of a reporting policy, lack of faith in the reporting system, and fear of retaliation) by empowering home healthcare workers to report incidents of violence (anonymously if they wish), and providing a system through which their reports are recorded and acted upon.

Once the scale of workplace violence is understood, organizations can develop policies for better protecting nurses in the community, upload the policies to the app, and provide training on how to use the app in order to summon help in the event of a potentially violent incident. The app can also be used to upload contact phone numbers for clients, maps and directions to their homes, and work schedules – or changes to work schedules due to staff illnesses.

One significant feature of the app for better protecting nurses in the community is a virtual escort. Home healthcare workers enter their destination and the time they expect to arrive at the destination (or leave the destination), and activate a countdown timer. If the countdown timer reaches zero without the feature being deactivated, the app automatically sends an alert to worker´s manager. The manager can then follow up the alert to check on the safety of the home healthcare worker.

Better Protecting Nurses in the Community May Soon be Mandated by Legislation

In the conclusion to OSHA´s Workplace Violence in Healthcare Report, it is suggested that the risks to nurses can be mitigated if employers and employees participate in a workplace violence prevention program in which:

  • The risks of violence are identified and addressed
  • Safety training is provided and supported by policies
  • Accurate records of workplace violence are maintained
  • Action is taken – and seen to be taken – on reported incidents.

OSHA subsequently published its Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers (PDF), which were adopted as minimum standards in the Workplace Violence for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (HR 1309). Although the Act passed the House in November 2019, its progress through the Senate was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will likely be re-introduced in a future Congressional session.

If the Act is passed, personal safety apps for better protecting nurses in the community will enable healthcare organizations to comply with the legislation with minimum drain on resources and little management overhead. If the Act is not passed, the apps still represent a cost-effective way of tackling workplace violence in healthcare in order to reduce the number of nurses leaving the profession and avert the forecast staffing crisis.