Shock new figures have revealed an alarming increase in the number of assaults on NHS staff.
Health workers' representatives fear increased waiting times in A&E departments and GP surgeries could trigger further violence from patients.
New data showed there were almost 57,000 physical assaults on NHS staff last year - a rise of 3.6%.
The figures, published by the NHS Security Management Service, revealed there were 56,718 assaults in England during the 2009/10 period, up from 54,758 in the previous year. Some 38,959 were in the mental health and learning disability sector, 13,219 happened in hospitals and 1,262 were against ambulance staff. Another 3,278 were in primary care, including GP surgeries.
There were a total of 1,128 "criminal sanctions", including caution, imprisonment or fine, against people who committed assaults over the same period.
"These figures are a real cause for concern when we know that pressures in the health service are on the rise," said Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). "Many trusts have worked very hard to reduce the levels of assaults against staff, however despite this there have been a staggering 57,000 assaults on staff in the last year.
"Assaults on staff are never justified, but the worry is that if pressures increase and people wait longer, the levels of frustration will rise. Nurses have been telling us that they are already doing more with fewer resources and staff.
"We are concerned, for example, that staff shortages could mean a return to the days of long waits in A&E, where tempers could flare on a regular basis. We would urge trusts to do everything in their power to avoid this situation for the benefit of patients as well as staff."
Unison health spokeswoman, Karen Jennings, said: "These statistics on violence make sad and shocking reading. Nurses, paramedics and other health workers should not have to go into work fearing that they may be at risk of attack."
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Your comments (terms and conditions apply):
"No surprises, it is all part of the 'rights' culture. Patients need to wake up and realise there is not a pill for every ill and most problems go away anyway with simple remedies that should be available in the home. I have just had abuse from a patient who turned up to find the local chemist shut because of snow and he had been late for his methadone so did not get it - nothing to do with this surgery as he is not a patient and the chemist is Boots but it was my fault and it was up to me to sort it out! The snow is about a foot deep here so Boots sent their staff home. Most of my staff are home too. It gets very wearing" - Name and address supplied