Despite Being Contagious, Health Care Workers Often Treat Patients

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It appears that a significant portion of those tasked with keeping us from getting sick, are putting us at risk of getting sick.

That's a key finding of a new study released today, which determined that more than 40 percent of healthcare professionals treat patients when they are sick and contagious, instead of staying home. And with the increasing numbers of elderly patients, or those with immunosuppression or severe chronic diseases, the risk created is significant.

Worse still, for healthcare professionals, or HCPs, who worked at hospitals, nearly half (49.3 percent) came to their facilities with influenza-like illnesses, or ILI.  

"We recommend all healthcare facilities take steps to support and encourage their staff to not work while they are sick," states the study's lead researcher Dr. Sophia Chiu, from CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "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."

Dr. Chiu's survey-based study, titled "Working with influenza-like illness: Presenteeism among US health care personnel during the 2014-2015 influenza season," was published today in the American Journal of Infection Control

As stated in the paper, by occupation, "pharmacists and physicians were most likely to work with ILI," with rates 67.2 percent and 63.2 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, by "work setting, hospital-based personnel were the most likely to work with ILI," at 49.3 percent of workers. 

Those least likely to come to work sick (28.5 percent) were professionals at long-term care facilities.

Given that these professionals were well aware of how germs spread, why did so many choose to ignore what they knew? According to the authors, the reasons were varied, with the most common being that "s/he could still perform his/her job duties." Other justifications were:

  • not feeling "bad enough" to stay home
  • feeling as if s/he were not contagious
  • sensing a professional obligation to be present for coworkers 
  • difficulty finding a coworker to cover for him/her

Close to 2,000 HCPs were surveyed online, and the occupations represented included doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and physician assistants. And of the 414 who said they had an influenza-like illness, 183 HCPs worked a median duration of three days while symptomatic.

Another finding that was troubling: Nearly half, or "49.8 percent of HCPs in long-term care settings who reported for work when sick reported doing so because they couldn't afford to lose the pay."