Telehealth creates a hidden health risk for clinical staff: Sedentary work

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the rapid transition from in-person care visits to telehealth transformed how healthcare workers go about their jobs.

Instead of the constant movement going between exam rooms and other work stations, many found themselves sitting at a desk, peering at a laptop.

At an October webinar, hosted by Becker's Hospital Review and sponsored by Ergotron, wellness practitioner and ergonomic expert Betsey Banker described well-being challenges for clinical staff that have arisen during the pandemic and provided a framework for healthy workday habits that organizations can adopt to support workers as they shift toward more sedentary work.

Five key learnings from the webinar:

  • Telehealth is to here to stay. Before the pandemic, telehealth comprised 0.3 percent of all patient visits. In the future, nearly 30 percent of all patient visits may be conducted virtually. Based on patient and caregiver surveys, people have been satisfied with care given virtually. Banker said 78 percent want to continue telehealth after the crisis abates, and 93 percent want to continue video sessions with existing providers, according to research from Vizient.
  • The drastic shift to sedentary desk work comes with increased risk of adverse health outcomes. Caregivers shifting from an active work style to one dominated by working at a computer are at a greater risk for problems typically associated with sedentary office work. Sedentary workers who spend a lot of time at a desk are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and mental health issues, particularly depression. Even seemingly short sessions of desk-sitting matter: Sitting for 30 minutes or more at a time increases risks.
  • Movement matters. Research on activity and health has traditionally focused on exercise and how much of it we should get. But a recent study found the health benefits from six minutes of light activity was equivalent to one minute of exercise. "It's amazing to think that a simple redesign of daily work could have such a huge impact on the health and well-being of individuals, especially for those that might not be getting 30 to 60 minutes of exercise outside of work," Banker said. Organizations should think about providing standing desks and educating employees on how to incorporate stretches and other short bursts of movement and light activity to their workdays.
  • Focus on improving poor posture and ensuring periodic "rest and reset" routines while doing repetitive tasks. Good posture and ergonomics are important to health. Keeping employees educated about what that means will help them avoid pain and other risks. Good posture means the thighs, forearms and chin are all basically parallel to the floor when sitting. Feet are supported, and the knees should be at the same level as the hips.
  • Assess the need for new or additional furniture and equipment. Banker recommends researching products designed for safety and comfort, and standardizing on those that meet your criteria. If possible, order sample units and create a live or digital "showroom" for employees to check them out. Many healthcare systems have wall units or laptop stations on wheels in their clinical settings; a desktop converter that can change a sitting desk into a standing one might be a worthy investment for those employees. Ask whether equipment is adjustable and customizable, as well as durable for long-term use.

It's clear that telehealth has remade the typical work environment for many workers, and ensuring they have what they need to perform well and reduce the health risks of less active work is important to their health and futures.

To register for upcoming webinars, click here.

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