The World Health Organisation has appealed to governments and health authorities to address persistent threats to the health and safety of health workers, emphasising that this was crucial to keeping patients safe.
On the occasion of World Patient Safety Day, the WHO issued its Health Worker Safety Charter amid mounting reports of infections, illnesses and attacks faced by health workers on the frontline fighting Covid-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of the vital role health workers play to relieve suffering and safe lives,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus maintained.
“No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe. WHO’s Health Worker Safety Charter is a step towards ensuring that health workers have the safe working the conditions, the training, the pay and the respect they deserve.”
Data from many countries has shown that healthcare workers are far more likely to contract Covid-19 than the general population. Though they represent less than 3% of the population most countries, they account for around 14% of all Covid-19 cases reported to the WHO. In some cases, the proportion can be as high as 35%.
But healthcare workers have also faced extraordinary levels of psychological stress in the midst of the pandemic, which has left them living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family and facing social stigmatisation. The WHO has also highlighted an alarming rise in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers.
5 steps to improve health worker and patient safety
The WHO’s charter reminds governments of their legal and moral responsibility to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their country’s healthcare workers, and sets five key objectives.
The first is to establish and strengthen synergies between the policies and strategies governing health worker safety and patient safety, treating the two as sides of the same coins.
Governments are also urged to develop and implement national programmes for the occupational health and safety of health workers.
The risk of violence is identified as a particular threat, with governments urged to promote a culture of zero tolerance and to implement relevant policies and mechanisms to prevent and eliminate the scourge of violence in the helath sector.
Governments should also strive to improve the mental health and psychological wellbeing of health workers, including through policies setting fair duration of deployments, working hours, rest break. Safe staffing levels should be defined and maintained, while support services should be in place for health workers.
The final stated objective is the protection of health workers from physical and biological hazards, including through the adequate availability of personal protective equipment, adequate services and ventilation at healthcare facilities and the vaccination of all health workers against all vaccine-preventable infections.