HEALTHCARE workers, who represent 2% to 3% of the world’s population (World Health Organisation figures for 2020), are undoubtedly on the front lines in battling the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their sacrifices have ensured that patients’ safety is top priority as they endeavour to reduce suffering and save lives.
However, being on the front lines of this battle has made them the group that is most vulnerable to infection. The WHO reports that about 14% of Covid-19 cases in 2020 were among healthcare workers. In some countries, the proportion was as high as 35%. In Malaysia, 2% of infected cases were healthcare workers, while in the United States, the figure has spiralled to nearly 570,000 and more than 3,000 have succumbed to the virus.
This global pandemic provides a stark reminder of the importance of healthcare workers and their safety. They are not only exposed to risks of contracting illnesses but their emotional and psychological well-being is affected too. The pandemic has taken its toll on them with long hours and separation from families for fear of spreading the infection. Sometimes, unfortunately, negative comments are posted about healthcare workers on social media; but the majority of the world’s population respects and appreciates their dedication.
Healthcare workers’ safety and patient safety go hand in hand because healthcare workers need to be fit to care for patients’ needs and safety. The following suggestions should help to protect both groups.
First, health workers can remain safe by ensuring that they are up to date with occupational health and safety measures. This will ensure that patients too, are given the proper care and treatment.
Periodic refresher courses on how to remain safe and ensure that patients’ health is optimised are vital. These courses can offer necessary continuous development and may count towards the licensing and accreditation standards of the institution to which the workers are attached.
Second, the authorities must supply frontliners with correct and certified personal protective equipment at all times, in adequate quantity and relevant to the roles and tasks performed, and of appropriate fit and acceptable quality. Proper disinfection at all healthcare facilities should also be undertaken.
Additionally, frontliners should be vaccinated as soon as possible after vaccines become available in accordance with the national immunisation policy.
Third, to promote frontliners’ mental health and psychological well-being, reasonable working hours, rest breaks and reduced administrative tasks will help. Insurance coverage for work-related risks also has to be put in place.
Staff should be allowed to voice concerns. And those who need assistance, access to mental healthcare and social support services must be provided.
Also, interdepartmental collaboration on health worker and patient safety, with appropriate stakeholder representation, should be forged.
Fourth, there has to be a culture of zero tolerance for violence against healthcare workers. Healthcare workers must be given sufficient support and helplines to report any abuse, and the authorities must be quick to take action.
Fifth, innovation related to health and safety protection during the pandemic has to be encouraged. Sometimes logic needs to be given due respect. All available options need to be considered, and if all have been exhausted, then new ideas need to be encouraged. The basics in healthcare should be observed: “Conservative first, invasive last”.
Sixth, funding authorities should be frequently updated with the evolving situation. It is vital for them to understand the urgency of tackling the pandemic to ensure the research funds, especially Covid-19-related ones, not only reach the target safely but also with timeliness to serve their main purpose.
Lastly, as we navigate the uncharted waters of the Covid-19 situation, healthcare leaders have to be constantly vigilant to improve health worker safety over the coming years, as living with the virus will be the new norm in our society.
ASSOC PROF DR YU CHYE WAH , Dean, Faculty of Allied Health Professions, AIMST University Malaysia
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