Orono Doctor's Killing Draws Attention to Violence Against Health Care Workers

Updated: 11/20/2013 3:14 PM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier

The death of a prominent Orono doctor is raising questions about the safety of health care workers and what the state can do to help reduce risk.

Dr. Stephen Larson was killed inside his Orono home on Friday night. Police shot and killed the suspect, Ted Hoffstrom, in Larson's front yard. Police said Hoffstrom was the son of one of Larson's former patients.

Sources familiar with the situation tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that Hoffstrom was born with a medical issue which he always blamed on Dr. Larson.

It was a violent end to a vibrant life.

"This is bizarre and rare and sickening," said Chris Messerly, a medical malpractice attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis.

Messerly deals with doctor-patient disputes every day, but said he's never seen one end like this.

"There are lots of angry people out there. I just have never, in my more than 25 years handling malpractice cases, seen it expressed in a violent way," Messerly said.

And while this case is an extreme example, state officials said doctors -- and health care workers in general -- are often victims of violence, aggression, and intimidation. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care workers are three times as likely to be the victim of violence at work than the average American employee. That number only includes incidents that occur at hospitals and other health care facilities.

For some, the anger continues long after treatment ends.

"If patients feel that they are victims of malpractice, their lives may be radically altered," Messerly said.

And he said he's seen that frustration manifest itself in inappropriate ways.

"Many are angry, and some have had some empty language about, 'I want something bad to happen,'" Messerly said.

But he said medical disputes belong in a courtroom, and should never end at a crime scene.

"When people take justice into their own hands, bad things happen, and that should never happen," Messerly said.

"It's an issue of staff morale and safety," said Diane Rydrich, director of the health policy division at the Minnesota Health Department.

Rydrich said violence committed against healthcare workers happens far too often.

"It can be a daily fact of life for front-line staff, to have to deal with incidents of punching, hitting, spitting, verbal threats, or intimidating behavior," Rydrich said.

That's why six months ago, the state formed the Violence In Health Care Work Group, which includes representatives from hospitals, clinics, and the medical association.

"It includes things like: How do we assess risk? How do we know a patient might be at risk of acting in a violent way?" Rydrich said.

The group is also working on drafting new policies and training initiatives to prevent violence, and wants to improve data collection for when violence does occur. That would provide a clearer picture of a problem Rydrich said is crucial to solve for both doctors and patients.

"If they're not feeling safe themselves in how they deliver care, that's going to affect how well they do their jobs," Rydrich said.

The work group is hoping to issue findings and recommendations by the spring of 2014.

State data shows there are only one or two assaults at Minnesota's health care facilities each year. But officials said right now, only the most serious violent incidents are reported.