Missing work hardly an option for ill doctors, but it may be necessary
If you think your doctor or nurse stays home while nursing a cold, guess again.
Turns out many health care professionals work when they are sick, according to a new survey that’s a bit surprising.
A large majority of the survey respondents — 83 percent — said that during the previous year, they went to work when they had symptoms such as diarrhea, fever and respiratory complaints. Doctors were more likely than nurses or physician assistants to work while sick, according to the analysis by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Before we start pointing fingers, let’s take a minute to examine our own calling-off-work habits. Or phrased differently, our tendency to hack all over our co-workers when we have a cold.
Admit it, you’ve gone to work when you’re under the weather, high on DayQuil or worn out by Benadryl. Perhaps you masked the cough by popping Halls lozenges every five minutes.
It might just be that you didn’t even give it a thought. A little cough never hurt anyone, right? Plus, who wants to stay home watching game shows and talk shows all day long?
Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an internist at Allegheny General Hospital, told me he’s not one bit surprised by the survey and admitted he’s gone to work when feeling poorly, but always using his judgment.
“We’ve been trained to try to come to work no matter what,” he said. “Our patients expect that.”
Can you think of one time when you went to the doctor’s office and were told he or she was sick? Probably not. It doesn’t happen often because, as Itskowitz said, health care workers have a strong work ethic and they take seriously their responsibility to take care of others.
But here’s the kicker. By their own admission, 95 percent of the doctors surveyed believe that showing up at work while sick puts patients at risk. That’s especially true if they are treating patients who have weak immune systems, such as people with cancer or those who’ve received an organ transplant.
Some common viruses can be deadly to vulnerable patients, according Dr. Jeffrey R. Starke of the Baylor College of Medicine and Dr. Mary Anne Jackson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
In the past, the physicians wrote, “Working while sick was regarded as a badge of courage, and ill physicians who stayed home were regarded as slackers.” Now, some doctors feel they can’t miss work because it would affect the bottom line of their practices or hospitals, the authors wrote.
Itskowitz said health care workers must use discretion and judgment if there’s potential to harm patients.
“Certainly, if you have an infection that is contagious and you’re dealing with a vulnerable population, you shouldn’t put them at risk,” he said. When they’re sick at work, Itskowitz said, health care workers should be mindful to wash their hands more frequently.
There’s an often overlooked reality about the health care system: It is ill-equipped to deal with workers who call off, Itskowitz said.
“If every time a physician got a cold we didn’t come to work, the system wouldn’t work. There would be a backlog of patients like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “We have to strike a balance here. Maybe study this a little bit more and come up with some criteria to determine when it is and it is not appropriate to come to work.”
Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or [email protected].