Practice Economics

De-Escalation Training Prepares Hospitalists to Calm Agitated Patients


If a patient shows signs of agitation, Aaron Gottesman, MD, SFHM, says the best way to handle it is to stay calm. It may sound simple, but, in the heat of the moment, people tend to become defensive and on guard rather than acting composed and sympathetic. He suggests trying to speak softly and evenly to the patient, make eye contact, keep your arms at your side, and ask opened-ended questions such as, “How can I help you?” in a genuine manner.

Dr. Gottesman

Dr. Gottesman

Dr. Gottesman, director of hospitalist services at Staten Island (N.Y.) University Hospital (SIUH), learned these strategies in a voluntary one-hour course on de-escalation training. Although he says he feels fortunate that he has never had to deal with a physically volatile patient, he has used the verbal de-escalation training. In some cases, he believes that employing it may have prevented a physically violent situation from occurring.

Specifically, de-escalation training teaches how to respond to individuals who are acting aggressive or agitated in a verbal or physical manner. The techniques focus on how to calm someone down, while also teaching basic self-defense skills.

Various companies offer this type of training; some will train staff onsite.

“It is money well-spent,” says Scott Zeller, MD, chief of psychiatric emergency services at Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif. “This is truly a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It only takes one unfortunate episode to result in a serious injury, where a healthcare professional will have to miss work or go on disability, which results in a far greater cost than that of the training.”

Appropriate Responses

Dr. Zeller

Dr. Zeller

By the nature of their work, hospitalists regularly come into contact with agitated patients. “Knowing how to safely help a patient calm down will result in better outcomes for the patient, the physicians, and everyone nearby,” Dr. Zeller says.

“Hospitalists should focus on what they can control,” says Judith Schubert, president of Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), a Milwaukee, Wis.-based company that offers de-escalation training in 400 cities annually. This includes physicians’ own behavior/demeanor, responsiveness, environmental factors, communication protocols, and a continuous assessment of risk and an understanding of how to balance duty of care with responsibilities to maintain safety.

Hospitalists should be aware of behaviors that could lead to volatility.

“Challenging or oppositional questions and emotional release or intimidating comments often mark the beginning stages of loss of rationality. These are behaviors that warrant specific, directive intervention aimed at stimulating a rational response and diffusing tension,” Schubert says. “Before it even gets to that point, empathy, demonstrated with the patient and family members, can reduce contagion of emotional displays that are likely rooted in fear and anxiety.”

Agitation usually doesn’t arise out of the blue.

“It is typically seen over a spectrum of behaviors, from merely restless and irritable up to sarcastic and demeaning, pacing, unable to sit still, all the way up to screaming, combative, and violent to persons and property,” Dr. Zeller says. “It is best to intervene in the earlier stages and help a person to calm before a situation gets out of hand.”

Thus, hospitalists should be wary of people who are increasingly hostile and energetic and should seek help or work to de-escalate promptly.

Although you may suspect that patients with mental illnesses are more prone to volatility, Dr. Zeller says that isn’t necessarily the case. The most common psychiatric illnesses that can lead to agitation are schizophrenia and bipolar mania. In addition, being intoxicated—especially with alcohol and stimulants—can predispose someone to agitation. Many other medical conditions can cause someone to become agitated, such as confusion, a postictal state, hypoglycemia, or a head injury.

Coordination, communication, and continuity among all members of a hospital team are crucial to minimize conflict, avoid chaos, and reduce risks. By being armed with information and skills, hospitalists are less likely to isolate themselves from other team members or react in a nonproductive way when crisis situations emerge. —Judith Schubert, president, Crisis Prevention Institute, Milwaukee, Wis.

How Bad Is It?

According to the Emergency Nurses Association’s Institute for Emergency Nursing Research, violence is especially prevalent in the ED; about 11% of ED nurses report being physically assaulted each week. The agency states that the data is most likely grossly underreported, since reporting is voluntary.1

Healthcare workers in psychiatric wards are the most likely to suffer an injury caused by an agitated patient, Dr. Zeller says. Of those, nurses are the ones most commonly affected, followed by physicians.

“But agitation-related assaults and injuries can happen just about anywhere in a hospital,” he adds.

According to a study conducted by the Emergency Nurses Association, pushing/grabbing and yelling/shouting were the most prevalent types of violence. Eighty percent of cases occurred in the patient’s room.2 Dr. Zeller says that the most common injuries are those resulting from being struck, kicked or punched, or knocked down. Injuries include heavy bruising, sprains, and broken bones.

Dr. Zeller says it’s difficult to quantify exactly what types and costs of injuries occur. Injuries related to agitation are known to cause staff to miss work frequently. “That can cost a lot in terms of lost hours and replacement wages, as well as medical care for the injured party,” he says.

The Most Dangerous Circumstances

According to a series of 2012 articles on best practices guidelines for the evaluation and treatment of agitation published in Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, two-thirds of all staff injuries occur during the “takedown,” which is when staff attempt to tackle and restrain an agitated patient.3

“If interactions with a patient could help the person to regain control without needing the takedown or restraints, there would be fewer injuries and better outcomes,” says Dr. Zeller, who co-authored the article. “To help these patients in a collaborative and noncoercive way, and avoid restraints, verbal de-escalation is the necessary approach.”

As part of the study, a team of more than 40 experts nationwide was established to create Project BETA (Best practices in Evaluation and Treatment of Agitation). Participants were divided into five workgroups: triage and medical evaluation, psychiatric evaluation, de-escalation techniques, psychopharmacology of agitation, and use and avoidance of seclusion and restraint.

The guidelines were intended to cover all aspects of working with an agitated individual, with a focus on safety and outcomes, but also had a goal of being as patient-centric, collaborative, and noncoercive as possible.

“Every part of Project BETA revolves around verbal de-escalation, which can be done in a very short amount of time while simultaneously doing an assessment and offering medications,” Dr. Zeller says.

As a result of incorporating the guidelines in Project BETA, the psychiatric emergency room at Alameda Health System—which deals with a highly acute, emergency population of patients with serious mental illnesses—restrains less than 0.5% of patients seen. Dr. Zeller points out that this is much lower than the numbers restrained at other institutions. For instance, an article published in October 2013 reported several studies showing that 8% to 24% of patients in psychiatric EDs were placed into physical restraints or seclusion.4

What’s Required of Hospital Administration?

Under its Environment of Care standards, The Joint Commission requires accredited healthcare facilities to address workplace violence risk. The requirements mandate facilities to maintain a written plan describing how the security of patients, staff, and facility visitors will be ensured, to conduct proactive risk assessments considering the potential for workplace violence, and to determine a means for identifying individuals on their premises and controlling access to and egress from security-sensitive areas.1

The standard states that “staff are trained in the use of nonphysical intervention skills,” says Cynthia Leslie, APRN, BC, MSN, associate director of the Standards Interpretation Group at The Joint Commission, which is based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “These skills may assist the patient in calming down and prevent the use of restraints and/or seclusion.”

In addition, staff must be trained before they participate in a restraint or seclusion episode and must have periodic training thereafter.

Anyone who wants de-escalation training can contact a company like CPI directly or establish in-house training teams (CPI offers an Instructor Certification Program). “This allows a cost-effective way [approximately $10 per person] to cascade training to others within the hospital who are part of care teams,” Schubert says.

In Sum

Providing for the care and welfare of patients while maintaining a safe and secure environment for everyone is a balancing act that requires the involvement of a multidisciplinary hospital team, Schubert says.

“Coordination, communication, and continuity among all members of a hospital team are crucial to minimize conflict, avoid chaos, and reduce risks,” she explains. “By being armed with information and skills, hospitalists are less likely to isolate themselves from other team members or react in a nonproductive way when crisis situations emerge.

“Training will help staff to take steps to ensure that their behavior and attitudes don’t become part of the problem and increase risks for others involved. Care team perceptions of physician involvement in solution-focused interventions are important for hospitalists to fully understand so risks can be avoided.”

Karen Appold is a freelance medical writer in Pennsylvania.

Quick Tips: De-escalating a troubled patient

Knowing how to handle a potentially volatile situation can prevent it from escalating out of control. Judith Schubert, president of the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), a Milwaukee, Wisc.-based company that offers de-escalation training, offers this advice to hospitalists:

  • Be aware of your own nonverbal, paraverbal, and verbal communication to avoid contributing topatient stressors.
  • Respect a patient’s personal space, which is considered an extension of self.
  • Communicate professionally and respectfully: Avoid using medical jargon, which can cause confusion and escalate someone who is already anxious.
  • Work cohesively with other team members to convey calm control of situations.
  • Be aware of environmental factors that can add to anxiety, such as sensory stimulation/overload, and consider ways to limit impact.
  • Provide information—even when it may seem obvious—as it can minimize stress of the unknown. In stressful situations, it can be easy to forget to tell patients what you are doing and why you’re doing it.


10 domains of de-escalation3

  1. Respect personal space
  2. Do not be provocative
  3. Establish verbal contact
  4. Be concise
  5. Identify wants and feelings
  6. Listen closely to what the patient is saying
  7. Agree or agree to disagree
  8. Lay down the law and set clear limits
  9. Offer choices and optimism
  10. Debrief the patient and staff

Source: Printed with permission by the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.


  1. ECRI Institute. Healthcare Risk, Quality, and Safety Guidance. Violence in healthcare facilities. March 1, 2011. Available at: Accessed February 11, 2015.
  2. Emergency Nurses Association. Emergency department violence surveillance study. November 2011. Available at: Accessed February 11, 2015.
  3. Richmond JS, Berlin JS, Fishkind AB, et al. Verbal de-escalation of the agitated patient: consensus statement of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry Project BETA De-escalation Workgroup. West J Emerg Med. 2012;13(1):17-25.
  4. Simpson SA, Joesch JM, West II, Pasic J. Risk for physical restraint or seclusion in the psychiatric emergency service (PES). Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2014;36(1):113-118.

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