Colds and flu

20 June 2012

Does the doctor have the flu?

Many interns and residents go to work with flu symptoms, ignoring the risks of passing infections to vulnerable patients, a new survey suggests.


Many interns and residents go to work with flu symptoms, ignoring the risks of passing infections to vulnerable patients, a new survey suggests.

Half of 150 Illinois residents said they'd worked sick during the previous year, and one in six had done so three or more times. Their excuse? A sense of obligation to colleagues and patients, explained Dr Anupam Jena, a senior resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who led the new research.

But it's not clear whether that's a worthwhile sacrifice, he said, even if a given physician is more familiar with his or her patients.

Docs can transmit the disease

"They're less productive and more likely to make errors," Dr Jena said. "And they can transmit the disease to somebody else."

Just last year, for example, a sick doctor kicked off a small outbreak of norovirus at Dr Jena's hospital.

Like other hospitals, Mass General now has rules to prevent health workers from coming to work with infectious diseases. "The main question is whether those policies are being enforced," said Dr Jena.

The survey, conducted in 2010 and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is based on answers from Illinois residents only. But the rate of "presenteeism" matches findings from an earlier survey by the same research team done at hospitals across the country.

Responsibility to patients

In a comment on the new report, journal Editor Dr Deborah Grady described a recent meeting with one of her residents, who, while usually jolly and energetic, looked "as if he had lost his last friend."

He had diagnosed himself with a respiratory infection and had chosen to go to work despite feeling "terrible."

"Working while sick may demonstrate an admirable sense of responsibility to patients and colleagues," Dr Grady wrote, "but clinicians also need to worry about the real danger of infecting vulnerable patients as well as colleagues and staff."

(Frederik Joelving, Reuters Health, June 2012) 

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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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