'Alarming' numbers: 4 in 10 healthcare workers report for duty when they're sick, putting patients at risk

Hospital lobby
Despite the risks, many healthcare professionals come to work while sick. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Many health professionals aren't following their own advice about how important it is to stay home when you're sick, according to a new study. 

survey of more than 1,900 healthcare professionals during the 2014-2015 flu season found that 4 in 10 came to work with flu-like symptoms. Of the 414 people who said they came to work with these symptoms, about 40% said they worked ill for the median of three days. 

"The statistics are alarming," said Sophia Chiu, M.D., the study's lead researcher and a medical officer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in an announcement. "We recommend that healthcare facilities take steps to support and encourage their staff not to work while they are sick." 

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Clinicians have reported a number of reasons that they report to work despite being sick, including: 

  • They can still perform their job.
  • They feel obligated to their co-workers.
  • They don't feel sick enough to miss a day of work.
  • They don't think they are contagious.
  • They feel professionally obligated to continue seeing patients. 

The problem is especially notable with part-time workers, who may not have the sick leave to take time off when they're ill. 

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Of those surveyed who felt they were healthy enough to work, 39% sought medical treatment for their flu symptoms. 

The survey found that hospital-based healthcare workers were the most likely to come to work while they are sick. Pharmacists and physicians worked while sick most often, with about 67% and about 63%, respectively, coming to work will flu symptoms. 

The survey also found that 22.7% of respondents did not get a flu shot during that flu season. 

Linda Greene, R.N., president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, said in the announcement that providers put potentially-vulnerable patients at risk when they come to work sick, and that healthcare facility leaders should re-examine their sick leave policies to encourage staff to stay home. 

"Tailored strategies per occupation and health institution, including updating paid sick leave policies, can empower [healthcare professionals] to make healthy choices, not only for themselves but for their coworkers and patients," Greene said.