Unhealthy decisions: 4 in 10 healthcare professionals still work when sick

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are known to be hard workers, but a new study shows that it would be best if they took a chill pill when sickness strikes.

According to the recent survey, about four in 10 healthcare providers experiencing flu-like symptoms will still show up for work. While coming into work sick always risks the spread of bacteria and potential disease, it’s an especially serious issue for those working in healthcare facilities where there are concentrations of older patients and people with immunity issues.

“The statistics are alarming. At least one earlier study has shown that patients who are exposed to a healthcare worker who is sick are five times more likely to get a healthcare-associated infection,” says study author Dr. Sophia Chiu in a press release. “We recommend all healthcare facilities take steps to support and encourage their staff to not work while they are sick.”

A new survey finds that four in 10 healthcare professionals will still show up for work even when experiencing flu-like symptoms for days.

A researcher at the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Chiu, along with several colleagues, looked at data collected from nearly 2,000 healthcare professionals during the 2014-2015 influenza season. They found that of the various physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers polled, 414 reported having flu-like symptoms that year.

Out of those 414, more than 40 percent (183) came into work for multiple days while experiencing symptoms.

At hospitals, the statistics were even worse — with nearly 50 percent of workers experiencing flu-like symptoms coming into work anyway.

Pharmacists and physicians were the worst offenders, coming in while sick more frequently than other healthcare workers.

“It has long been known that doctors make the worst patients,” writes Dr. Danielle Ofri, explaining the phenomenon in a 2013 New York York Times piece. “From day one in medical training, the unspoken message is that calling in sick is for wimps.”

Going on to enumerate the laundry list of inconveniences to colleagues and patients that occur when a doctor calls in sick, Ofri eventually concludes that the culture needs to change and doctors need to learn to take sick leave despite the inconvenience.

In this new survey, healthcare professionals also reported not taking sick days because of feelings of professional obligation to coworkers and difficulty finding colleagues to cover for them.

Standing in contrast to these reasons, which were most common to hospitals, healthcare professionals at long term care facilities instead often reported they came in while sick because they couldn’t afford to take the time off.

The overall results of the survey — indicating that healthcare workers don’t take sick days when they should — matches data from other earlier surveys, including a 2015 study that found more than 83 percent of the 536 healthcare workers in that survey had worked while sick in the past year.

“Attending physicians and (advanced practice clinicians) frequently work while sick despite recognizing that this choice puts patients at risk,” those authors wrote. “The decision to work sick is shaped by systems-level and sociocultural factors. Multimodal interventions are needed to reduce the frequency of this behavior.”

The authors of the latest study made similar conclusions, writing that to reduce influenza transmission, healthcare professionals need to change their misconceptions about working while ill and institutions need to “consider the influence of paid sick leave policies.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone with flu-like symptoms wait 24-hours after a fever breaks before returning to work.

The survey comes on the heels of other recent research looking at the role of healthcare professionals in spreading disease, including one study finding that MRSA and other contaminants are frequently carried on scrubs.

The survey findings were published in the November issue of the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC).