News Release 

Study shows healthcare workers often care for patients while ill

Employees in patient care work with symptoms of cold, flu, and other respiratory illnesses

Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America

NEW YORK (June 18, 2019) -- Large numbers of healthcare workers risk transmitting respiratory viruses to patients and co-workers by attending work even when they have symptoms, according to a study published today in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the journal for the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. The study found that 95 percent of people working in healthcare settings have worked while sick, most often because the symptoms were mild or started during their workday.

"We found that physicians and people working in areas that required the most intensive contact with patients were less likely than other workers to stay home or to leave work if symptoms progressed after the start of the day," said Brenda Coleman, PhD, clinical scientist in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, and lead author of the study. "Managers and senior staff need to both model and insist on workers staying home when symptomatic as it protects both patients and coworkers from infection."

Hospital-acquired respiratory viral infections are recognized as causing significant illness and even deaths as well as increased healthcare costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthcare workers with fever and respiratory symptoms consider temporary reassignment or exclusion from work for while symptomatic, but working with symptoms of an acute respiratory viral illnesses is common, with as many as 92 percent of healthcare workers reporting to work while symptomatic.

Researchers conducted a four-season prospective cohort study of influenza and other respiratory illnesses in nine Canadian hospitals in Toronto, Hamilton, and Halifax. Healthcare workers in acute care hospitals who worked more than 20 hours a week were asked to complete daily online illness diaries whenever they developed symptoms. Illness diaries collected information about symptoms, possible exposure, attendance at work, reason for work or absence, and medical consultations.

A total of 10,156 illness diaries were completed by 2,728 participants. Diaries of participants that were not scheduled to work were excluded, leaving 5,281 remaining diaries for analysis. Analysis of the diaries found that 69 percent of participants said that they worked during an illness because they had mild symptoms and felt well enough to work, 11 percent said they had things to do at work, 8 percent felt obligated to work, and 3 percent stated that they could not afford to stay home. Half of the participants reported episodes of acute respiratory viral illness during each influenza season, with 95 percent of those who reported an acute respiratory viral illness working one or more days of their illness. Seventy-nine percent said they were entitled to paid sick leave.

These findings suggest the need to educate healthcare workers, managers, workplace health and safety and infection control staff, and administrators about the risk of transmission associated with respiratory viral infection, to clarify what symptoms require exclusion from work, and to develop and implement policies for working while symptomatic, Coleman said.

Though the study was conducted in Canada, researchers believe the results also apply to the United States since hospitals in both countries follow similar recommendations to prevent the spread of disease, including standard, droplet and contact precautions as well as vaccination requirements. "There are likely as many differences between states as there are between Canadian and U.S. institutional recommendations." Coleman said

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Lili Jian, Allison McGeer, Shelly McNeil, Kevin Katz, Mark Loeb, Matthew P. Muller, Andrew Simor, Jeff Powis, Philipp Kohler, Julia M. Di Bella, Brenda L. Coleman. "Which healthcare workers work with acute respiratory illness? Evidence from Canadian acute care hospitals during four influenza seasons: 2010/2011 to 2013/2014." Web (June 11, 2019).

About ICHE

Published through a partnership between the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America and Cambridge University Press, Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology provides original, peer reviewed scientific articles for anyone involved with an infection control or epidemiology program in a hospital or healthcare facility. ICHE is ranked 19th out of 83 Infectious Disease Journals in the latest Web of Knowledge Journal Citation Reports from Thomson Reuters.

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) is a professional society representing more than 2,000 physicians and other healthcare professionals around the world who possess expertise and passion for healthcare epidemiology, infection prevention, and antimicrobial stewardship. The society's work improves public health by establishing infection-prevention measures and supporting antibiotic stewardship among healthcare providers, hospitals, and health systems. This is accomplished by leading research studies, translating research into clinical practice, developing evidence-based policies, optimizing antibiotic stewardship, and advancing the field of healthcare epidemiology. SHEA and its members strive to improve patient outcomes and create a safer, healthier future for all. Visit SHEA online at http://www.shea-online.org, http://www.facebook.com/SHEApreventingHAIs and @SHEA_Epi.

About Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University's mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 400 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing. Playing a leading role in today's international marketplace, Cambridge University Press has over 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world. For further information about Cambridge University Press, visit Cambridge.org.

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