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Thursday May 22, 2014

Physician's Killing Prompts Changes, Reflection

You wouldn't even notice the new safety precautions at my practice, and you probably don't know about the bad things that happened in my medical community that necessitated them. But I know those new safety measures are there, and the recent additions make me feel a little bit safer than I did a few months ago.

There are new locks on the doors between the waiting room and the area that leads to our exam rooms, and other changes are under consideration.

Here I'm reviewing electronic health records with medical assistant Jessica Martinez. Events in our community have made me think about what my practice can do to keep staff and patients safe.

I always thought of my practice as a safe place where people could come for help, and where I, in turn, would "do no harm." But it turns out that violence can happen anywhere. And sometimes it comes to us, as it did for my community back in December.

After the dust had settled, we found out that a disgruntled patient had entered a local urology clinic and told everyone in the waiting area to get out. The man, who blamed a vasectomy for his failing health, then walked through an unlocked door between the waiting room and the exam rooms and opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun. When it was over, one physician was dead and another was seriously injured. A relative of a patient visiting the clinic also was injured before the shooter took his own life.

When we discovered who had been killed and who had been injured, we were shocked and speechless. These were not only colleagues, they were friends and mentors.

The incident affected our community far beyond the walls of the medical building where the shootings took place. For example, the wife of the physician who died is an obstetrician who works downstairs in my building. She has two teenage children.

In the aftermath, patients were wary of coming to appointments at the urology clinic. Some patients couldn't even go into the building where the shootings had happened.

Both my brother- and sister-in-law are police officers here in Reno, Nev., and they often point out that things like this can happen anytime, anywhere. They get up in the morning, put on their bulletproof vests and are pretty much prepared for anything.

Me? I put on scrubs and a stethoscope and prepare to help people who need it. Never would I have previously gone to work thinking that my patients or I would be at risk for such a tragedy. How do we feel safe -- and make our patients feel safe -- in an increasingly violent society?

A few weeks before the shooting at the urology clinic, a 12-year-old boy brought his parents' gun to school in a neighboring town and killed a teacher and wounded two students before killing himself.

A month after the shooting at the urology clinic, an elderly man entered a hospital in Carson City -- our state capital -- and shot and killed his wife in what was planned as a murder-suicide. His gun jammed.

Violence seems to lead to more violence. After the attacks on the local urologists, other physicians in our community received threats from patients. One man who was denied narcotics by a physician at my practice took it way too far. First, he called in threats. When that didn't get the response he wanted, he made more threats in person. The police were called, and he was arrested.

Incidents like these make me realize that we physicians deal with issues of safety and mortality in more ways than one. It also made me step back and evaluate how experiences shape the way we practice. Are there physicians who now are more lenient in their prescribing practices because of threatening patients? Are there physicians who have changed the way they perform surgery?

Was something lacking in the communication between the disgruntled patient and his physicians? Now I make even more of an effort to listen to both the spoken and unspoken concerns of my patients. I have tried, along with my colleagues, to rebuild the sense of security within my office and our medical community that was shattered this past winter. The physical changes to our clinic are just a small change that helped me and my staff go back to our normal everyday lives.

What is your practice doing to keep its physicians, staff and patients safe?

Helen Gray, M.D., is an employed family physician in Reno, Nev., working in a hospital-based setting. She also is adjunct faculty with the University of Nevada School of Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @helengraymd.

Posted at 04:04PM May 22, 2014 by Helen Gray, M.D.

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