Penn Medicine invests $28M in new weapons detection, security tools to limit violence against health workers

Physical and verbal violence against health care workers has reached record levels, according to federal data.

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Eddie Elliott, security systems coordinator

Eddie Elliott, security systems coordinator, helps oversee the Evolv weapons detection machines at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The machine in the main lobby was installed in October 2023. More are being phased in throughout the Penn Medicine system. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

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At the main lobby entrance to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, patients and visitors are directed toward a security system.

They walk between two tall panel devices: a security machine that scans for metal objects. The system is equipped with artificial intelligence that determines if the shape of that object resembles a gun, knife or other kind of weapon.

A security guard demonstrates how the system works by walking through with a baton in his back pocket. The machine gives off one loud beeping sound. A tablet screen nearby displays a frozen image of the guard with a red box over the area of his back pocket.

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A security guard walks through the Evolv weapons detection security system in the main lobby at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
A security guard walks through the Evolv weapons detection security system in the main lobby at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Penn Medicine is installing the machines at most public and staff hospital entrances across its system. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

“The machine pretty much has a computer in it that tells us, ‘Hey, this is where that threat may be,’” said Eddie Elliot, security systems coordinator. “Hypothetically, if it was a bag or something like that, you would still have to do some type of search protocol, but it’s still letting you know where exactly you can identify the threat.”

The Evolv weapons detection system tablet
The Evolv weapons detection system screens visitors for metal and uses artificial intelligence to determine if the shape of that metal resembles a weapon. A tablet alerts security to the location of a possible gun, knife or other weapon. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

The new security system and technology are part of Penn Medicine’s $28 million project to limit and prevent violence against health care workers, which has been on the rise nationally.

The hospital installed this new Evolv weapons detection security system in the lobby in October. During the first three months, the machine prevented 123 guns, 72 knives and 143 other unspecified weapons from entering the medical facility.

“Some of these people over the years have been bringing guns in, but now we’re catching it,” said Joe Forte, hospital security director.

Eddie Elliot and Joe Forte
Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania security staff Eddie Elliott (left), security systems coordinator, and Joe Forte (right), security director, help oversee the new Evolv weapons detection machines. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

On average, more than 2,500 people every day pass through the main lobby of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and another couple thousand come through other public entrances and the emergency department — making it one of the busiest hospitals in Philadelphia.

A majority of people get stopped by the Evolv system for benign objects like umbrellas (which could resemble the barrel of a gun) or eyeglass cases (which get flagged as possible pipe bombs), and they’re quickly cleared to go.

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When security does catch a weapon, they don’t confiscate it but tell people they need to leave the building — even those whose firearms are licensed and registered.

The weapons detection piece is just one part of a larger plan to protect staff and visitors.

“[People] have a right to come to work safe every single day,” said Penn registered nurse Lisa Triantos. “They should not fear coming to work and being either verbally or physically assaulted, but we also have a duty to provide care to our community.”

Many health care systems find themselves dealing with a growing number of physical attacks, verbal harassment and aggression toward health care providers.

The rate of violence against these workers rose 63% nationally between 2011 and 2018. In a 2022 poll, one quarter of emergency physicians nationwide reported that they’re getting assaulted more frequently, as many as multiple times a week.

Industry leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic made things worse. In New Jersey, hospitals saw a 14.6% increase in violent workplace incidents during the COVID-19 emergency.

While research shows that a majority of incidents do not involve weapons, Forte said the presence of something like a gun or knife could make a bad situation a lot worse. The goal of the new security screening is to eliminate that possibility.

“We’re responding to violence in the hospital and it’s great to know that there’s not going to be a gun up there or a knife when we’re trying to calm somebody down,” he said.

The new security measures were informed by health care providers like Triantos, clinical director of emergency and medical nursing at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — another hospital that sees a high volume of patients and visitors.

She helps run employee subcommittees on workplace violence prevention efforts across the system. They’ve helped expand de-escalation training to more departments beyond high-risk areas like emergency rooms and trauma centers.

“So, identifying sources of anxiety and being able to intervene sooner rather than later, before that anxiety escalates to either verbal or physical violence,” Triantos said.

Penn Medicine officials say they plan to distribute personal duress badges to all clinical providers and staff. If someone finds themselves in danger, they can discreetly press the small device to call for backup and alert security to their exact position within the facility.

Triantos said going forward, it’s important for health system leaders to share with staff exactly how effective these security and prevention measures are at improving safety.

“We can implement and we could work as hard as we can behind the scenes, but if the staff aren’t aware of what we’re doing, then we’re not meeting our true potential in having employees feel safe when they come to work,” she said. “A lot of a staff member’s perception of safety is just knowing.”

Penn Medicine plans to phase in the Evolv weapons detection machines at public and staff entrances at seven of its hospitals and eight ambulatory sites in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Other sites in the city, like Temple University Hospital Main Campus and Citizens Bank Park, also use Evolv security systems.

These security tools won’t completely eliminate all workplace violence, like verbal attacks and harassment. Triantos said that’s why it will always be important to have support and counseling services in place for providers who still experience these kinds of assaults.

“To help talk about how to not let it define you or jade you as a clinician and not strip you of that compassion,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s why we went into health care, because we want to help people.”

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