More on Quality and Safety

4 in 10 healthcare professionals work when they're sick, risking patients

Patients who are exposed to a sick healthcare worker are five times more likely to get a healthcare-associated infection.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

A new study suggests that healthcare professionals should heed their own advice: Stay home when sick.

Some four in 10 healthcare professionals work while experiencing influenza-like illness, according to findings published in the November issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, the journal of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

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As in all workplaces, contagious employees risk infecting others when they turn up for work. But with higher concentrations of older patients and individuals with immunosuppression or severe chronic diseases in healthcare facilities, flu-like transmission by healthcare workers naturally presents a public health hazard.

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The research pointed to an earlier study showing that patients who are exposed to a sick healthcare worker are five times more likely to get a healthcare-associated infection.

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The annual study, conducted via a national online survey, collected data from from 1,914 professionals during the 2014-2015 flu season. Respondents self-reported influenza-like illness, defined as the combination of a fever and cough or sore throat, and listed factors that prompted them to turn up for work.

The survey assessed a variety of health occupations across multiple institutions: physicians; nurse practitioners and physician assistants; nurses; pharmacists; assistants/aides; other clinical pros; nonclinical pros; and students. Four types of work settings were assessed: hospitals, ambulatory care or physician offices, long-term care facilities and other clinical settings.

Of the 1,914 professionals surveyed, 414 reported flu-like illness. Of these, 183 -- or 41.4 percent -- reported working for a median duration of three days while experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Hospital-based healthcare professionals had the highest frequency of working with flu-like illnesses (49.3 percent), compared to those at long-term care facilities (28.5 percent). Clinical professional healthcare workers were the most likely to work with the flu (44.3 percent), with pharmacists (67.2 percent) and physicians (63.2 percent) among those with the highest frequency.

The survey found that assistants and aides (40.8 percent), nonclinical workers (40.4 percent), nurse practitioners/physician assistants (37.9 percent), and other clinical workers (32.1 percent) worked while sick.

The most common reasons for healthcare professionals to opt from taking sick leave included feeling that they could still perform their job duties; not feeling "bad enough" to stay home; feeling as if they were not contagious; sensing a professional obligation to be present for coworkers; and difficulty finding a coworker to cover for them. Among the workers who felt they could still perform their job duties, 39 percent sought medical attention for their symptoms, as did 54 percent of those who didn't think they were contagious. Almost 50 percent of workers in long-term care settings who reported for work when sick reported doing so because they couldn't afford to lose the pay.

Healthcare professionals with self-reported flu symptoms missed a median number of two work days. Of those, 57.3 percent visited a medical provider for symptom relief; 25.2 percent were told they had influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone with such symptoms wait 24-hours after a fever breaks before returning to work.

Previously published results from the survey showed that only 77.3 percent of respondents reported getting a flu shot.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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