Today 17th September 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) commemorates ‘Patient Safety Day’ focused on the safety of health workers. Health workers face many potential hazards in delivering their duties to patients that often render them patients as well. Regardless of the cadre, these hazards are real. In many cases they are a cause of obscure suffering. This is because the suffering of health workers goes unnoticed or is never voiced. Consequently this highlight of the WHO is timely particularly now when health workers are at the frontline of combatting the dreaded COVID-19 globally.
Beyond the high risk of infection and resultant demise from the current pandemic, health workers are also susceptible to other infections including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, amongst others. With increasing risk where clients are unaware or intentionally fail to disclose existing conditions. A very painful reminder was the loss of dear health workers in Lagos, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when an infected client intentionally did not disclose his exposure and illness.
Other hazards include exposure to chemicals used in laboratory testing, ergonomic hazards from lifting objects and even clients where appropriate infrastructure are lacking, and fire and electrical hazards. In considering the wider scope of work in the health sector, it is clear to see that these exposures can also affect technicians, engineers and other support staff keeping health delivery going.
By failing to optimize safety levels in the health sector, health workers are less motivated and empowered to ensure safety of clients or patients. First of all promoting safety ensures that health workers are increasingly aware of and continue to update their knowledge of safety in health care. Awareness increases interest in this case. Further knowledge promotes a greater safety culture which clients ultimately benefit from as primary beneficiaries of health services. Finally, clients as patients are motivated to engage in their care as well as monitor that safety protocols which often are widely exhibited, are followed. Therefore there is a ripple beneficial effect in investment in health worker safety.
Still, little emphasized aspects of health worker safety must also be amplified. In this vein psychologically supportive environments are necessary. This is not just to ensure optimal emotional and mental functioning of health workers but also to promote cohesive teamwork across the sector. Health worker voices must be heard. Whether at the level of health teams in hospitals or in the wider health sector, allowing for dialogue not only reduces individual stress levels that affect risk of diseases like diabetes and hypertension, but also promotes effective health responses. This is particularly relevant in the past couple of days, as different cadres of health workers have embarked on industrial action in Nigeria, pointing out (amongst others issues) professional inequities.
While some may view this as a tussle between different health professionals, the reality is health teams are required to ensure effective and safe care of the population. Without the reality of professional equity, exceptional health delivery in Nigeria will continue to remain an aspiration. For this reason a creative solution must be found. This solution should also take the WHO’s health worker safety charter, launched today in consideration. It professes that safe working conditions, training, remuneration and respect be accorded to all health workers. The Nigeria government at all levels through her ministry’s of health, should reflect on in its deliberation and dialogue in addressing the current health worker crisis.