On Jan. 20, a 44-year old surgeon was shot and killed in the middle of the day at one of the country’s top hospitals. Michael Davidson, MD, an endovascular surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, was in a second-floor hospital clinic when 55-year-old Stephen Pasceri asked for him by name. Dr. Davidson, the division director of endovascular cardiac surgery and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, had taken care of Pasceri’s mother before her death in November 2014. Witnesses reported that Dr. Davidson came out to talk to Pasceri; during that conversation, Pasceri shot Dr. Davidson twice.
Dr. Davidson was quickly taken to the ED but died 12 hours later.
The shooter died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The motive is not clear, but Pasceri had voiced frustrations with the medical industry during the care of both his father and his mother. In addition, his mother seemed to have suffered some type of complication after a surgery performed by Dr. Davidson. Interviews of Pasceri’s relatives, friends, and neighbors found they were all shocked and dismayed. The shooter was, by all accounts, an upstanding citizen in his work, home, church, and community; he was an accountant with four children, with no past history of criminal or violent activity.1
A Disheartening Trend
Two other fatal events in medical centers occurred within weeks of the Davidson shooting. In December 2014, at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, N.H., a man shot and killed his wife before killing himself.
Days later, at a Veterans Hospital clinic in El Paso, Texas, another shooting left both the perpetrator and a psychologist dead.2
In the healthcare setting, providers encounter many types of violence. Nonfatal violence, ranging from physical aggression to various levels of physical harm, has become commonplace. Inciters of such violence tend to be those who “can’t help themselves,” often patients with primary psychiatric illness or those with medically induced mental impairment, such as delirium or withdrawal. For these patients, there is at least some level of compassion and tolerance for their behavior, and because they tend to be relatively predictable, preparedness and mitigation of such acts can give providers some sense of control over the situation.
But the Davidson event represents a type of violence that is frightening, unpredictable, and very difficult to prevent, prepare for, or adequately handle.
Actual shootings on medical campuses are, fortunately, rare. A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response found 154 hospital shootings between 2000 and 2011, resulting in 235 injured or dead victims. The most commonly occurring scenario is that of people acting against family members, with healthcare workers getting caught in the crosshairs. The most common victim is the shooter (45% of the time), and the least common victims are physicians and nurses. Over half (59%) of medical center shootings occur within the hospital; the other 41% occur somewhere else on the hospital grounds.3
So what can hospitalists and hospitals do about the real threat of physical violence and shootings within medical centers? Some have recommended metal detectors as effective barriers for preventing weapons from entering medical centers. The primary problem with this solution is that the majority of medical centers have found this plan impossible to implement, given the number of entrances in typical hospitals; Johns Hopkins for example, has more than 80 entrances. Metal detectors also require security staffing at each entrance 24/7.4
Because of the barriers, metal detectors present an insurmountable financial obstacle for most hospitals. In addition, they present an issue with public perception. Many would argue that hospitals are (and should be) places of healing and sanctuary (e.g. “safe havens”), not places for suspicion and searches. In addition, although there is evidence that the use of metal detectors results in increased confiscation of weapons, there is no evidence that they result in fewer on-site assaults.5 Further complicating matters, almost a quarter of the shootings that occur in EDs result from the perpetrator grabbing a weapon from a security guard.3
Others advocate for stricter gun control laws and enforcement, an argument that has vehement advocates and critics on both sides and is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.
Take Action: Be Prepared
In the meantime, hospitalists are left with preparedness tactics that range from situational awareness to active shooter drills. Both are equally important and should be a part of disaster preparedness at any medical center regardless of size, type, or location. Hospitalists can and should take a lead in such preparedness. Current statistics show that hospitalists are employed in at least 85% of all U.S. hospitals. With such widespread penetration, hospitalists can have a huge impact on the preparedness efforts that can prevent such acts from occurring, as well as on organizational resilience and recovery if such an act does occur.
Such training is more important in healthcare settings than other workplaces, as medical personnel have to be specially trained to resist the temptation to help. For example, active shooter training instructs personnel to run, hide, or fight, none of which come “naturally” to those trained to save and rescue for a living. This training instructs anyone in the “Hot Zone” (where life is in direct danger) to run away from the scene (always preferred if feasible), hide (barricade the door, silence any devices, and stay still), or fight (use anything in sight to fight the shooter, and work as a team if feasible). These responses are the exact opposite of what most trained healthcare personnel are accustomed to doing in cases of emergency.
The Michael Davidson story is very sobering by all accounts. Healthcare violence such as this, while rare, is devastating.
Hospitalists should lead the way in training and preparedness for violence prevention and mitigation, including active shooter simulation scenarios. We can all have a huge impact in reducing the risk of casualties should such an unpredictable event occur in our hospital.
- Freyer FJ, Kowalczyk L, Murphy SP. Surgeon slain, gunman found dead in day of crisis at Brigham. January 20, 2015. The Boston Globe online. Available at: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/01/20/boston-police-investigate-report-shooting-brigham-and-women/Jhig9z8LO8A5PH9Er4vTiP/story.html?rss_id=Top-GNP&utm_source=Managed&utm_campaign=386d2ff709-Quality+%26+Patient+Safety+Update&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ebe1fa6178-386d2ff709-319388717. Accessed February 5, 2015.
- Barnet S. Gun violence in hospitals: how much of a threat is it really? January 21, 2015. Becker’s Hospital Review. Available at: http://www.beckershospitalreview.com/healthcare-blog/gun-violence-in-hospitals-how-much-of-a-threat-is-it-really.html. Accessed February 5, 2015.
- Kelen GD, Catlett CL, Kubit JG, Hsieh Y-H. Hospital-based shootings in the United States: 2000 to 2011. Annals of Emergency Medicine online. September 20, 2012. Available at: http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644%2812%2901408-4/abstract. Accessed February 5, 2015.
- Calvert S, Scharper J, Roylance F. Experts: no need for metal detectors at Hopkins. September 17, 2010. The Baltimore Sun online. Available at: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-09-17/business/bs-md-hopkins-hospital-security-20100916_1_metal-detectors-healthcare-security-and-safety-hospital-security-experts. Accessed February 5, 2015.
- Rankins RC, Hendey GW. Effect of a security system on violent incidents and hidden weapons in the emergency department. Ann Emerg Med. 1999;33(6):676-679.