World Patient Safety Day 2020: COVID-19 pandemic highlights why keeping healthcare workers safe matters
A knowledgeable, skillful, motivated and cautious healthcare workforce is critical in providing appropriate and safe care to patients.
The World Patient Safety Day was established in May 2019 by the World Health Assembly, and the day itself is celebrated on 17 September. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and its associated institutions and nations are virtually celebrating this day in 2020 with the theme Health Worker Safety: A priority for patient safety and the slogan “Safe health workers, safe patients”.
It might seem strange at first glance that the focus on patient safety also highlights the need for better protection of healthcare workers but the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has underlined this need. The WHO points out that the pandemic is among the biggest challenges faced by the world at present and healthcare is perhaps living its greatest crisis in patient safety. The pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on healthcare systems from around the world, and every one of these health systems depends on the vital service of health workers.
A knowledgeable, skillful, motivated and cautious healthcare workforce is critical in providing appropriate and safe care to patients. But the pandemic has also shown that healthcare workers are currently facing an immense challenge and working in the stressful conditions of a pandemic has increased the threats faced by them.
How COVID-19 has impacted healthcare workers
A study published in ERJ Open Research in April 2020 indicated that a month after the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, global health systems showed gross unreadiness for such a situation and most countries left their healthcare workers in the lurch. The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, was felt globally and left most healthcare workers exposed to COVID-19 infection even as they rallied to serve patients in need.
The study also anticipated that community transmission and asymptomatic carriers could put healthcare workers at more risk during the pandemic, underlining the need for more protective measures beyond the hospital setting. Another study, published in the Indian Journal of Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgery in June 2020, conducted a cross-sectional hospital-based survey between April and June and found that 40 healthcare workers were infected within the first two months of the pandemic at just one hospital. About 57.5 percent of the infected healthcare workers reported positive for psychological parameters like anxiety, fear, anger, irritability and insomnia, and yet, 42.5 percent received no psychological counselling at all.
The importance of keeping healthcare workers safe
This Indian study highlights that workplace risks for healthcare workers, even after contracting the infection while serving patients, are very high and very little is being done to manage the psychological stress the workers are under. Media reports from August 2020 suggest that 87,000 healthcare workers in India have so far been infected with COVID-19 , with just six states — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, West Bengal and Gujarat — reportedly accounting for three-fourths of the positive cases.
A more recent report by the Indian Medical Association says that 382 health workers have already died of COVID-19 infection. These reports suggest that healthcare workers may not be receiving the support and care they require to perform their much-needed duties during the pandemic.
As the WHO points out, these challenges faced by healthcare workers not only increase their risks of being infected and contributing to outbreaks within the healthcare facility they work at but also increase the chances of inducing errors which can potentially harm patients and colleagues.
The psychological duress and the risks of stigma, violence, illness and death exacerbate the crisis faced by healthcare workers. It is only with urgent action taken by healthcare administrators, policymakers, governments, industry and civil society that these crises faced by healthcare workers can be mitigated. And let’s not forget that their mitigation is a vital part of ensuring optimal patient care and safety.
For more information, read our article on Patient rights in India.
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