COVID! COVID! COVID!
Our conversations locally, nationally and globally have focused on nothing but COVID-19 since the start of 2020!
One thing is very clear – these are unprecedented times. COVID-19 has impacted every person and every sector of every society around the world, and especially overwhelming health care systems and workers beyond any normal limits.
We are witnesses to endless social media and news stories describing what health care systems and health workers were faced with in different countries, including Canada. We listened to stories about keeping our health care workers safe and about the many people they cared for who were either infected or dying from COVID, or had non-COVID conditions and in need of urgent medical care.
Simply put, these conversations were primarily about SAFETY – health worker safety and patient safety. This conversation is not and should not be unique to the COVID-19 situation, but we can draw from these experiences to understand why we need to continue the discussion about safety as it applies to health care workers and patients.
If there is ever a year to focus on the safety of health care workers as it relates to patient safety, this is the year!
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared this year's theme for World Patient Safety Day on September 17th as 'Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety'. Their call to action is for us to "Speak up for health worker safety!" Much of the public already supports this call, as does Patients for Patient Safety Canada.
This call to action considers the many stories, pictures and facts featuring health care workers in different settings and in situations where their safety was not secured. Sometimes they became patients too, and some died. Not all of these experiences are COVID-related but during this time, the WHO identified common hazards faced by health care workers globally. They were not only exposed to COVID, but challenged with having adequate quality protective equipment, fearful of becoming infected and infecting colleagues or their loved ones, physically and mentally fatigued and psychologically distressed.
These hazards could have impacted the safety of health care workers, increasing their vulnerability and risk of becoming infected. During the peak of COVID, the International Council of Nurses indicated that about 6% of all cases of COVID infections in 30 countries were health care workers. Country-specific numbers were even higher. For example, in the US during July, 120,000 known health care workers were infected and 590 died, an estimated 15 – 20% of all COVID cases at that point in time. More locally, Ontario estimated that 17% of people infected during the peak of COVID were health care workers.
Regardless of all the stories and facts pointing to unsafe practices in healthcare or community settings, many health care workers and patients do not feel comfortable speaking up about them. And yet – we know why we should be speaking up. We know that when health systems and health care workers are overwhelmed and challenged by pressures like COVID-19, there is increased risk of safety incidents for not only health care workers but also for patients. We know that when health care workers are physically, mentally and psychologically stressed, patient incidents like medication errors and miscommunications increase.
Healthcare workers and patients must learn to speak up, and not become 'invisible victims' amidst the hazards and challenges. We need a 'culture of safety' in health care with accessible and accepted methods of reporting unsafe practices and preventing them. A safe healthcare system is always ready to learn.
WHO and Patients for Patient Safety Canada are putting out the call to action - 'Speak up for health worker safety!" Through this action, we believe that having safe health workers means that patients have a better chance of getting safer care – 'Safe health workers, safe patients'.
If as Canadians we believe in keeping everyone safe in our health care system, during times such as COVID-19 or at any other time, then we have a strong reason to rally. That is why this year's World Patient Safety Day on September 17th is focusing on 'Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety'.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Katharina Kovacs Burns, member of Patients for Patient Safety Canada (PFPSC), a patient-led program of the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and the Canadian arm of WHO Patients for Patient Safety global network. Our mission is 'Every Patient Safe'.