Strategically situated deep within The Alfred are small clusters of people integral to the hospital’s smooth running, but they are also on the front lines – and with that comes risk.
One of these ward clerks, Monash University medical student Sophie Franklin, said her job was scary at times: “I’ve been sworn at, and there have even been people in here threatening to shoot the Emergency Department staff.”
Ward clerks support doctors and nurses by making appointments as well as registering, admitting and organising the transfer of patients.
Theirs is vital work, especially in the Emergency Department where it is important everything run smoothly amid the overflow of critically injured and ill patients being rushed into the hospital and from one part of it to another.
Franklin – one of the newer ED ward clerks – admitted that when she took on the job she did not know what to expect. She quickly found it was a common occurrence to be confronted by people who came in mentally unstable due to drug use.
Many vented their aggression on clerks such as herself: “They look at me and think I may be an easy target.
“I get called names. I was called a princess once by a drunken woman who proceeded to throw things at me.” How many times a day did she feel unsafe? “All the time.”
When danger erupts, help is not always at hand. The hospital has only four security guards so, with them often called out to other parts of the hospital, clerical staff may find themselves on their own.
Her junior status offered no protection, she explained: “Being one of the youngest employees, I’m not always taken seriously, particularly by patients who are intoxicated.”
Stories such as these are commonplace in this environment. One of Franklin’s colleagues, Sara Wertheim, admitted she had often felt uncomfortable during her 13 years as a ward clerk.
“One time in particular a patient with behavioural issues was in an area where he wasn’t being supervised closely enough. He ended up coming into the nurses’ station and actually grabbing one of the doctors around the neck.”
The most distressing development was when she pressed the duress button under her desk but no one from security responded.
“The doctor eventually managed to extricate himself, with no assistance,” she added.
Another ward clerk, Pinar Kadir, chipped in: “Situations like that occur regularly. Ward clerks are [often] mistreated.”
But unruly patients were only one of the challenges ward clerks faced. Complications arose from the fact they were the first point of contact anyone phoning ED would have.
“I’ve had a number of conversations with agitated people over the phone where I have unfortunately been verbally abused,” Kadir said.
Wertheim agreed: “Often the phone callers are more frightening and abusive than many patients.
“The ward clerks are well trained to ensure that the information and reception that callers are given are professional, reassuring and correct.
“But, even still, people tend to get frustrated and abuse us far too often. I suppose as they are not face to face they have no qualms about treating the clerk rudely.”
Jane Bradford, who is in charge of the ED clerical staff, echoed her team’s comments, summing up that ward clerks were “undervalued as a profession”.
They “have a huge amount of knowledge about the hospital and the ward that possibly a lot of the clinical staff don’t have. I’d like to see them try and run the department without us for a day and see how it goes.”
All four women agreed that in their profession, despite feeling under-appreciated and sometimes frightened, they enjoyed their jobs.
Wertheim said, “The rewards … come from those times when you feel appreciated and that you have added to the patient’s experience by being able to do something to enhance their stay.
“I really get pleasure from being thanked – and sometimes even hugged – by patients or their families for going that little extra distance to do something for them in their emergency situation.”
Franklin said, “It’s a great feeling to be doing something so important.”
Bradford concluded: “I would say that people need to make themselves aware of all the tasks and the knowledge that the clerical staff have. We are a resource that deserves to be valued.”