Many doctors, nurses, midwives and physicians assistants come to work sick even through they know it puts patients at risk, a new survey suggests.
Many said they don't call in sick because they don't want to let colleagues or patients down by taking a sick day, and they were concerned about finding staff to cover their absence.
At the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Julia E. Szymczak and colleagues analysed survey responses collected last year from 536 doctors and advanced practice clinicians at their institution.
More than 95 per cent believed that working while sick puts patients at risk, but 83 per cent still said they had come to work with symptoms like diarrhoea, fever and respiratory complaints during the previous year.
About 9 per cent had worked while sick at least five times over the previous year. Doctors were more likely than nurses or physicians assistants to work while sick.
Analysing their comments, the researchers found that many report extreme difficulty finding coverage when they're sick, and there is a strong cultural norm to come in to work unless extraordinarily ill.
The findings are reported in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers were not able to respond to a request for comment by press time.
Sick health care workers present a real risk for patients, especially ones who are immunocompromised, like cancer patients or transplant patients, said Dr. Jeffrey R. Starke of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who coauthored a commentary on the new study.
"Most of us have policies restricting visitation by visitors who are ill, we screen them for signs or symptoms," Starke told Reuters Health by phone. "Yet we don't do the same thing for ourselves."
Most hospitals do not have a specific policy restricting ill healthcare workers, and developing and enforcing these policies may help address the issue, he said.
These policies should put the decision about who is well enough to come into work into someone else's hands, not the doctor's, Starke said.
Aside from spreading illness in the hospital, sick doctors likely perform worse on the job than healthy ones, he said.
This article was first published on July 7, 2015.
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