£97m panic alarm plan to protect health staff

GPs and practice staff who make home visits could be given personal panic alarms to alert police and security staff if they feel they are in danger of being attacked by violent patients.

As part of a drive to tackle the rising number of assaults on NHS staff, £97 million has been set aside in England for a series of initiatives including 30,000 satellite-linked devices for front-line hospital staff and isolated workers.

Funds will be available for PCTs to run more courses in how to defuse dangerous situations. Because GPs are not NHS staff, it will be down to each PCT to decide whether to include them in the programme. But a spokesman for the DoH said PCTs will be encouraged to roll out local panic alarm programmes to GPs making home visits to patients who could pose a risk.

Dr Helena McKeown has had trouble from patients being aggressive at her Salisbury Surgery in Wiltshire. Last year a colleague was held at knifepoint for three hours by a drug addict when she visited the patient's home. Because the visit was at the end of a shift, nobody was aware that she was in trouble.

'This is brilliant news. I really hope PCTs involve GPs', said Dr McKeown. 'Dealing with drug addicts and patients with alcohol problems are part of the job. Sometimes they do get abusive when I tell them that I am not prepared to give them more drugs. When I am on my own or on home visits a silent alarm would be a great reassurance.'

The plans were unveiled last week by health secretary Alan Johnson at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth, Dorset. Alarms will be given to staff working alone or covering graveyard shifts in out-of-hours centres and hospitals. They will enable police and security staff to locate the member of staff in trouble.

Remaining cash will fund prosecutions against violent patients, Mr Johnson said.

BMA Wales has applauded the plans and said it should be extended to include all front-line staff. It has also called on Welsh health minister Edwina Hart to follow suit and inject funds into dealing with the problem.

BMA Wales chairman Dr Richard Lewis said attacks on staff were an increasing problem and tougher sentencing was needed before it became endemic, as some GPs now saw violence as an occupational hazard.

'Anybody who abuses our staff must face tough action and the possibility of jail, he said.

'Alan Johnson's announcement is welcome, but as yet, we have had no similar announcement in Wales. That's why we're calling for all healthcare workers and even medical students to be given attack alarms,' he added.

The campaign to give all staff the alarms was formally adopted by the BMA at its annual representatives meeting in June 2007.

A BMA Northern Ireland spokeswoman said there were plans to send out panic alarms to those that needed them. There are no plans to fund alarms in Scotland.

henry.ellis@haymarket.com  

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