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Psychiatric Patients Ill-treated in Emergency Rooms, US Officials Say

chiatric patients to undress so that staff could look for hidden drugs or weapons, but the patient wanted to keep on his jeans. A male nurse "used excessive force" to remove them, the health department found, breaking the patient's arm. The patient required surgery and a three-week hospital stay.

In April 2006, a 49-year-old former nurse who arrived in the emergency room at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital at 10:30 p.m., intoxicated and uncooperative. Staff strapped down his arms and legs, gave him sedatives, and assigned a security guard to watch him. After a nurse called the security guard away to help with another violent patient, the first patient had a fatal cardiac arrest. The hospital's internal investigation determined that the patient was not properly monitored. Staff told state investigators that the ER was "very, very busy."

In June 2006, a male teen in the Merrimack Valley Hospital ER in Haverhill began pulling medical equipment out of a wall, kicking furniture, and biting staff. While he was biting a nurse, a staff member repeatedly punched him in the face. State investigators said the hospital did not properly train staff on how to restrain patients. Hospital staff said punching was a last resort because the patient was severely injuring the nurse.

The state public health and mental health departments have been so concerned about the pattern of complaints that they sent a memo to hospital executives in September, detailing 21 steps they should take to improve care of psychiatric patients in ERs, including reducing waiting times, using trained mediators, and further training staff in techniques to calm patients.

But patients and advocates for people with mental illness say problems remain rampant. They are pushing legislators to increase the mental health department's role in regulating ER care and to require the public health department to develop "best practices" for treating psychiatric patients.

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