Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists fear contracting coronavirus and infecting patients

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Health care worker wearing a white coat and gloves. Credit: Pixabay.

Doctors and nurses are on the frontlines of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, and some have been raising concerns that they’re not adequately protected (in California and around the world). 

Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and public health at UC Davis, explains those concerns around protection -- for today’s Daily Dose. 

“The biggest worry, obviously, is becoming infected. And for many of them, it's not even being infected themselves. It's about the implications that if infected, they have the potential to infect their patients and their families and their communities. And it is with all the masks and gowns and gloves and everything that we've got. It is hardly a home run,” he says.

Wilkes says all kinds of infections happen regularly for health care workers -- simply because of the job they’re doing, but COVID-19 is still a big worry. 

KCRW: Are there steps that can be taken, equipment that can be added? Or are people particularly concerned because we don't fully know how this virus operates, and don't have a vaccine for it?

Wilkes: “There are some things that the listeners might not be aware of. Most hospitals and clinics today are operating on an electronic medical record (EMR) system. Those systems are often the enemy … of the doctors and physician's assistants and nurse practitioners. The systems are slow … they hinder our ability to get information quickly. And they're owned by two large companies that compete with each other. But both of them are very proprietary, and they don't allow us to talk to each other.

We've got lots of innovations, people that are making apps that could track symptoms and allow us to stay in touch with patients. And these EMR companies are so proprietary that they're not allowing us to connect in a safe and secure way with those systems. 

There are ways that the health care system could help some of us. Scribes make it so much easier -- these are young, often pre-med, who take notes during our encounters, and then help us write the notes so that we can see patients much more quickly. 

So there are lots of system things that could be done to make us much more efficient and much more focused on patients -- that just aren't being done right now.”

Are older health care workers facing special challenges? What portion of the workforce do they comprise? 

“It depends on how you define health care workers. Are we just talking about doctors? Or doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists? 

But there are a lot of people that help the health care system work. I mean, ward clerks, and the men and women that check in patients, and the dietary workers in hospitals. The list goes on and on. 

Many of them are older … defining older by being over 65. … Often doctors work into their early 70s without any problem. They are the most vulnerable. But they're also the ones that are the most experienced. Many of them have been through these sorts of things before. They understand issues around triage. They understand issues around fear.

They're super valuable. So how do we use them? How do we protect them? Perhaps one option is to put them into supervisory roles, so that they actually can take care of more complicated problems, or deal with systems problems so they're not directly interfacing with patients. 

But we definitely need to take care of them. If we lose them, well, there are lots of ways that we can augment our workforce over the long term. But short term, we need them. 

And perhaps another important fact is our medical and nursing and social work students. There is a huge controversy right now about what role these people should play. 

I haven't done a study, but it feels to me like there's a portion of them that feel as though they're tuition paying, and they shouldn't be in a risky situation. And this isn't fair for us to ask them to work in hospitals right now. 

A larger proportion feels as though this is what they signed up for. Nobody promised them safety and comfort. And this is what they need to learn how to take care of -- of society's needs. 

And so what role do they play? In the hospitals and in clinics, right now they play a very important role. If we take them out, again, we're going to be much shorter than we would otherwise.”




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta