Nearly 50 per cent of Midlanders believe people who attack NHS staff should be jailed, according to a report published yesterday.

A poll conducted by the NHS Security Management Service revealed 60,385 health workers were punched or hit by patients or visitors last year - which equates to one assault for every 22 NHS workers.

More than nine out of ten people in the West Midlands believe violence against hospital staff is wrong, with 24 per cent claiming those responsible should be thrown off NHS premises without being treated.

It is believed that most attacks are carried out by men, aged 18 to 24, in A&E departments against nurses. Drink or drugs are often a contributing factor.

The number of prosecutions brought against people who attack doctors, nurses and other health workers has risen 15-fold since 2002/03 when 51 cases were identified, compared to 759 prosecutions in 2004/05.

The survey was carried out to highlight a new national agreement between the NHS SMS and the Association of Chief Police Officers which should result in more prosecutions and tougher sentences.

The memorandum of understanding outlines how the NHS and police will work together to drive down assaults and ensure tougher punishment for offenders.

It commits both the police and the NHS to investigate every reported incident of violence or abuse and to put pressure on the courts and CPS to ensure offenders receive tougher sentences.

Health Minister Rosie Winterton, said: "It is totally wrong that so many of our hard-working doctors and nurses are subject to violence and verbal abuse while trying to treat patients.

"With one in 22 NHS staff members the victims of abuse, it is crucial that we work with the police to crackdown on all forms of unacceptable behaviour."

Jim Gee, managing director of NHS Security Management Service, said: "I am very pleased this agreement between the NHS SMS and Acpo has been signed.

"With the promise of more prosecutions and tougher sentences, NHS staff should be able to look forward to the day when assaults are an increasingly rare occurrence. "Although we have seen a 15-fold increase in the number of prosecutions for attacks on staff, history tells us that the courts have been too lenient on these crimes.

"Violence against NHS staff is an aggravating factor in assault charges, which should mean tougher sentences. It is the responsibility of the NHS and the police to ensure this is taken into account by the courts."

The Royal College of Nursing recently called for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take the issue far more seriously and take positive steps to ensure that people who attack NHS staff are prosecuted'.

Terence Grange, Acpo lead for violent crime and Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys Police, said: "I am pleased to endorse my support of the memorandum of understanding between the NHS and police which commits us to working together to tackle the problem of assaults.

"Any violent behaviour is unacceptable, and tackling all forms of violent crime is a key priority for the police service. It is totally unacceptable that doctors and nurses are subject to such aggression.

"The police, working with NHS colleagues, will be vigorous and offenders investigated and prosecuted accordingly."