December 02, 2015 | | Comments 0
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When nurses get sick, a culture of toughing it out can put patients at risk

A woman comes to the hospital lobby asking to visit a friend who has recently had surgery. The visitor is coughing heavily and appears to be sick. Do you let her in to see her friend? Most hospitals would say no; a well-meaning but sick friend or relative could have a devastating effect on an immunocompromised patient.

Meanwhile, a nurse arrives for his shift with the exact same cough as the sick visitor. Do you let him go to work, potentially treating the exact same immunocompromised patients you’re trying to protect?

According to a study published this July by The Journal of the American Medical Association, the answer is yes.

The study found 83% of physicians and advanced care practitioners (APCs) came to work sick while in 2014, with 9% going to work at least five times while sick. Of those who came to work, 30% were experiencing diarrhea, 16% had a fever, and 56% had an acute onset of significant respiratory issues. This is despite the fact that 95% of respondents believe coming work sick is a health risk for patients.

So what compels nurses to go to work sick, even though they know it’s a bad idea?

The answer has to do with an understaffed nursing culture that looks down upon those who miss work and leave others to pick up the slack. Nurses reported the main reasons they worked when sick was because they feared ostracism by colleagues for missing work (64%), they didn’t want to let their patients down (93%), they worried about staffing (95%), and that they didn’t want to let their coworkers down (99%.) Furthermore, 57% said they were unclear over what level of illness made them “too sick to work.”

Here are some steps that nurse managers can take to combat this:
• Create clear standards for what constitutes “too sick to work.” Develop and enforce specific policies that restrict sick nurses from coming to work.
Make sure all nurses receive vaccinations for the flu and other seasonal/preventable illness.
• Promote a culture that understands that sometimes nurses get sick and it’s better to stay at home than be a health risk.

Entry Information

Filed Under: Health and wellnessInfection control


Brian Ward About the Author: Brian Ward is an Associate Editor at HCPro working on nurse management.

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