“No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
Towards that end, to ensure health workers have the safe working conditions, training, pay and respect they deserve, the UN health agency released the Health Worker Safety Charter, on Thursday, coinciding with the World Patient Safety Day.
The Charter calls on governments and those running health services at local levels to take five actions to better protect health workers.
The actions include protecting health workers from violence; improving their mental health; protecting them from physical and biological hazards; advancing national programmes for health worker safety; and connecting health worker safety policies to existing patient safety policies.
In addition to the Charter, WHO has also outlined specific World Patient Safety Day 2020 goals for health care leaders to invest in, measure, and improve health worker safety over the next year.
The goals are intended for health care facilities to address five areas: preventing sharps injuries; reducing work-related stress and burnout; improving the use of personal protective equipment; promoting zero tolerance to violence against health workers; and reporting and analyzing serious safety related incidents.
Health workers at much higher risk of COVID
COVID-19 has not only increased the risk of infection and illness among health workers and their families, it has also exposed them to very high levels of psychological stress.
Although not representative, data from many countries indicate that COVID-19 infections among health workers are far greater than those in the general population, said WHO.
They represent less than 3 per cent of the population in the large majority of countries and less than 2 per cent in almost all low- and middle-income countries, but around 14 per cent of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers, with the proportion as high as 35 per cent in some countries.
Thousands of health workers infected with COVID-19 have lost their lives.
However, with limited quantity and quality of data, it is not possible to establish whether health workers were infected in the work place or in community settings, according to the UN health agency.
Added psychological stress
In addition to physical risks, the pandemic has placed extraordinary levels of psychological stress on health workers exposed to high-demand settings for long hours, living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family and facing social stigmatization.
Before COVID-19 hit, medical professionals were already at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world, said WHO, adding that a recent review of health care professionals found one in four reported depression and anxiety, and one in three suffered insomnia during the global health crisis.
WHO also highlighted an “alarming rise” in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19.
They have had to bear with assaults and armed attacks, physical and psychological threats, denial of services, eviction from their homes, and stigma, obstructions and cyber attacks.