Most healthcare workers admit caring for patients while ill themselves, study finds

TORONTO — A career in healthcare is generally considered one of the most noble professions one can pursue. Dedicating one’s life to helping others is an incredibly selfless decision, but a new study finds that many healthcare workers may be putting their patients and co-workers at risk by neglecting their own needs while on the job.

Conducted over the course of a year as a collaborative effort across nine Canadian hospitals in Toronto, Halifax, and Hamilton, the study found that 95% of healthcare workers have reported for duty while sick. Most of the time this occurred because the workers’ symptoms were mild, or developed over the course of a workday.

Healthcare workers in selected hospitals who worked more than 20 hours per week were asked to fill out an online illness dairy whenever they felt any type of illness or started developing symptoms. These diaries collected information on symptoms, possible exposure, work attendance, and any medical consultations. In all, 2,728 healthcare workers participated in the study, and 5,281 diaries were analyzed.

Sixty-nine percent of participants said they reported for work while ill because the symptoms were mild and they felt they could still do their job, while 11% said they worked while ill because they had tasks to accomplish. Another 8% said they felt obligated to work, and 3% said they could not afford to stay home.

Half of the participants reported experiencing an acute respiratory viral illness during influenza season. Among those who experienced a respiratory virus, a staggering 95% admitted to reporting for work at least once while dealing with the illness.

“We found that physicians and people working in areas that required the most intensive contact with patients were less likely than other workers to stay home or to leave work if symptoms progressed after the start of the day,” explains lead author Brenda Coleman, a clinical scientist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, in a statement. “Managers and senior staff need to both model and insist on workers staying home when symptomatic as it protects both patients and coworkers from infection.”

According to Dr. Coleman, the alarming results of the study indicate that virtually all healthcare workers, from nurses to administrative staff, need to be better educated and periodically reminded of the dangers associated with reporting for work while under the weather.

While this study was conducted in Canada, researchers believe its results also apply to the United States, due to the fact that hospitals in both countries follow very similar protocols.

The study is published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the journal for the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

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