Until recently, the fact that medical professionals like doctors, nurses, technicians, and others put their lives on the line for their patients went largely overlooked. In today’s climate, Americans are paying more attention to obvious risks like the high transmission rates of potentially deadly infectious diseases, but COVID-19 is far from the only threat faced by healthcare professionals.
Here are the five potential dangers associated with employment in the medical field to learn about other ways that healthcare workers put their lives on the line to care for patients:
Infection from bodily fluids
Although much attention has been given in recent months to COVID-19 as an airborne pathogen, healthcare workers in a variety of settings are still just as likely to come into contact with patients suffering from blood-borne diseases. Although the average American faces less risk of becoming infected with pathogens like HIV or the hepatitis virus since they only spread by bodily fluids, healthcare workers routinely handle bodily secretions so they are still at high risk.
Medical professionals know that the term blood-borne disease is a bit misleading. HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne pathogens can also be passed when blood or some other bodily secretions come into contact with mucous membranes or non-intact skin. Even a small cut on the tip of a finger is a large enough opening to allow the virus to pass through.
To reduce their infection risks, medical personnel must follow standard precautions such as using personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, gowns, and safety glasses. If accidental exposure does occur, standard procedure indicates that healthcare workers should clean and sterilise the affected area immediately, then report the injury to a superior and seek medical evaluation. Those working in the healthcare industry should also take the time to check out InsureSTAT to learn about their options for disability insurance policies that will cover them should viral transmission occur.
Sharps injuries and disease transmission
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) estimates that around 5.6 million medical workers are at risk for exposure to dangerous diseases via accidental needlesticks and sharps injuries. There are many pathogens that can be transmitted when accidental needlesticks occur, including HIV, HBV, and HVC. Out of all healthcare professionals, nurses are at the highest risk of sharp injuries and exposure to these dangerous pathogens both in patients’ rooms and in the operating room (OR).
Back in 2000, Congress passed the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act to help protect nurses and other healthcare workers, but it has not reduced the risk of sharps injuries and disease transmission to zero and accidental exposures still occur at a rate of over 385,000 sticks per year. The solution to this problem is to use safer equipment and exercise extreme caution when it is unavailable. Workers who are exposed to blood-borne pathogens via needlesticks should report their injuries immediately so they can receive post-exposure prophylactic care.
Surgical smoke plume exposure
Healthcare workers who routinely spend time in the operating room may be able to reduce the risk of pathogen exposure by using adequate PPE and practising extreme caution when handling sharps, but they can’t avoid all occupational hazards. Surgical smoke plume is present during 95% of OR procedures and often contains toxic gases, viruses, bacteria, vapours, particulates, and viable cellular material. This harmful byproduct of surgical devices like lasers, ultrasonic equipment, and electrosurgical units can linger in the OR for up to 20 minutes before ventilation systems remove the particulates from the air.
There’s little that healthcare workers can do to protect themselves from surgical smoke plume exposure beyond always wearing a surgical mask in the OR. The onus for positive change lies in the institutions, themselves. Health and safety organisations recommend implementing more sophisticated ventilation and evacuator systems to minimise exposure to dangerous airborne contaminants in the OR, so medical personnel may also want to find out what protective measures are in place at their facilities and, if necessary, advocate for installing more effective ventilation and evacuator systems.
Physical violence is surprisingly common in healthcare facilities. Patients and distressed caregivers alike often verbally or physically abuse nurses and other workers, and while mental health providers are at higher risk of facing occupational violence, three-quarters of nurses across all sectors report experiencing patient or caregiver aggression.
When patient aggression and physical violence are the results of mental illness or other inevitable factors, it may feel like there is nothing healthcare workers can do to protect themselves. In reality, clinicians can minimise risk to themselves and other workers by conducting risk assessments before coming up with treatment plans. Other healthcare workers can also help to mitigate the impact of physical violence in the workplace by participating in training sessions to raise awareness of warning signs of escalating violence and learn about conflict de-escalation methods.
Medical professionals have always faced high rates of occupational burnout. They work long shifts, deal with stressful situations, and often find that the trials and travails they face at work impact their lives at home. Combined with the physical fatigue associated with working long shifts, this leads many healthcare professionals to express dissatisfaction with their jobs or even switch fields.
To combat burnout, it’s important for medical personnel to practice self-care by trying to make the most of their time off, engaging in relaxing activities like yoga and meditation. Many facilities are now allowing nurses and other personnel who habitually work long shifts to take additional breaks throughout the day, as well.
Working in the field of medicine can be incredibly rewarding, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without its fair share of risks. Healthcare workers can mitigate risk by following health and safety protocols at all times and exercising due caution, but even at facilities that are committed to employee safety, they won’t be reduced to zero. It’s important to maintain awareness of occupational hazards to reduce the risk of disease transmission, personal injury, and burnout.
Image credit: Freepik
Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of Edinburgh.