Nigeria: Increasing Assault On Health Workers

It is becoming commonplace for hospitals and healthcare facilities in Nigeria to paste warnings to patients and their relatives on the rights of doctors and nurses to carry out their work without fear of intimidation, harassment and even assault. It is bad enough that health workers are in short supply across hospitals in Nigeria and are being poached by countries willing to pay them much more than we can in Nigeria, along with better working conditions.

The ones that choose to remain are now being forced to contend with the aggression of patients or their relatives. In recent months, there have been an increasing number of reports of doctors being assaulted by dissatisfied patients. And from all indications, the hospitals, law enforcement agencies and even local authorities are ill-equipped to manage the growing threat.

The most recent reported attack was just a few days before the new year at the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital in Kwara State where a patient’s relative assaulted one of the doctors. In retaliation, the hospital management allegedly seized the corpse of the patient and arrested relatives of the deceased. The reason given for the assault by the relatives was the casual attitude of medical staff, which they believe led to the death of the deceased.

The hospital is only insisting on the prosecution of the arrested individuals, but resident doctors have reportedly called a five-day strike. The attacks have, however, been going on consistently for months now with no sign of stopping.

And according to Dr Ola Ahmed, the chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association in Kwara State, these attacks on medical personnel are taking place across the state virtually every week, and are causing the doctors psychological trauma. There was a reported incident in February last year, this time at the University of Medical Sciences Teaching Hospital (UNIMED), Akure, Ondo State, where a relative of a patient beat up a medical doctor on duty.

Chairman of the Bauchi branch of the NMA, Dr Adamu Sambo, at a press conference in July 2022, gave a description of the assault: “On the 8th of July, 2022, Dr. Mohammed Sani, who is the Principal Medical Officer in charge of General Hospital, Misau, was attacked by a patient’s relative with an axe, with an intent to kill him. This act is barbarism is unacceptable in the medical profession.”

“Whatever the grievances, these grievances should have been addressed in a lawful way rather than taking the laws into the hands of that very individual. This individual came, he took a member who did not even participate fully in the management of the relation of this person in question, and came with a very sharp object, an axe, and stabbed the doctor four times.”

Again, in August last year, after a gynaecologist working in an Abuja hospital was brutally attacked by a patient’s relative and sustained a traumatic brain injury, the Nigerian Medical Association in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) expressed worry at the “increasing incidence of violence against health care providers, including doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants.”

The association was particularly concerned with younger colleagues, and even some of the older colleagues, seeing violence introduced in their practice environment.

These attacks and the aggression being shown by average Nigerians, who are themselves likely sufferers of emotional trauma, are signs of a society turning on its self. Clearly, anger management has become an issue that needs to addressed in an increasingly traumatised society.

The poverty, the cycle of violence being perpetrated by kidnappers and bandits, and in some cases by security personnel are taking a toll. Beyond prosecuting those responsible for the assault on doctors and other health personnel, the administrators of these hospitals and local authorities need to set up mechanisms to manage emotional trauma and the mental health of not only their patients, but relatives who cannot handle the news of losing family members.

There is a popular saying that hospital patients are the hardest customers to please and placate. While health officials have grown accustomed to offering counselling to those suffering from terminal ailments like HIV/AIDS, there is little or no counselling for other categories of patients. And, as demonstrated by the statements from the Medical Association of Nigeria, the health workers themselves need counselling to protect them from mental stress and the aggression of patients while on duty

We also recognise that carelessness, incompetence, and indifference from doctors and other medical personnel have led to the untimely deaths of patients entrusted in their care. And usually, they get away with it. As a newspaper, we urge hospital administrators to create channels through which patients’ relatives can easily bring complaints against medical personnel whose negligence lead to serious consequences for the patient. This will reduce the propensity by patients’ relatives to resort to self-help.

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