Gun and health care workplace violence: Dr. Lindley Dodson’s tragic death

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As a pediatric emergency physician in Chicago, I am no stranger to the effects of gun violence in our patient population and society.  But what do we do when gun violence is turned on our own community as physicians?

Recently a beloved pediatrician in Austin, Texas, Dr. Lindley Dodson, was held hostage and killed in a murder-suicide carried out by another pediatrician with whom she had no relationship. This senseless tragedy has not only rocked the local Austin pediatric community, but the shockwaves have rippled nationally.  The events hit very close to home.  I completed my fellowship in Austin and knew Dr. Dodson personally as a compassionate, wonderful doctor who cared deeply about her patients.  My colleagues and I struggle to understand how something like this could happen, especially to someone so beloved in our community.

Events like this show us that we are not immune to the effects of gun violence.  The COVID-19 pandemic, with increased strain on medical systems and providers along with worsening patient fear and misinformation, has exacerbated the problem worldwide.

There have been several instances of gun violence against physicians in the recent past. In 2018, a gunman killed three people at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, including an emergency physician. In 2017, a disgruntled physician committed a mass shooting at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, killing a doctor and wounding many others. In 2015, a cardiac surgeon was fatally shot at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston by an armed man.

While the circumstances of each event may be different, it is clear that physicians are vulnerable.  A common theme is that these acts of violence were carried out at each of their workplaces.

Workplace violence is not an uncommon occurrence. According to the World Health Organization, between 8 and 38 percent of health workers worldwide suffer from physical violence at some point in their career, and many more are victims of verbal aggression and threats.  When these attacks involve firearms they become more deadly and more terrifying. An article in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that there were 154 hospital-based shootings between the years 2000-2011.

How do we combat the dovetailing issues of gun violence and health care workplace violence?

In a recent Lancet article, the authors outline several strategies to combat violence against health care workers, especially in this current pandemic climate.   In order to understand the scope of the problem, we must prioritize further research on this issue and use this information to design interventions.   We must learn from  particular incidents of violence and use momentum to form community partnerships with local and state governments to condemn and prevent these attacks. We must ensure accountability against anyone who threatens physician and health care worker safety.  And finally, we need security measures to prevent future violence against health care workers.

Similarly, funding gun violence research and strengthening community and government partnerships are key to mitigating firearm injuries.  Studies have shown that stronger gun policies are associated with decreased rates of firearm homicide,  including laws that strengthen background checks, permits and identification requirements.

Some may say physician shootings are isolated instances that could not have been prevented.  I say one physician death is too many, especially when that doctor is a respected member of our community who was in her clinic taking care of children.

Most physicians go into medicine to help people.  Most physicians do not fear going to their workplaces. Tragedies like what happened to Dr. Dodson give us pause and leave most of us wondering if it could have just as easily been ourselves.

My hope is that Dr. Dodson’s tragic death will not be in vain.   With the post-election promise of stronger leadership on anti-gun violencenow is the time to make strides to protect our most vulnerable populations and ourselves as physicians.

Sheryl Yanger is a pediatric emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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