4 insights on why physicians should stop working while sick

As this year's severe flu season continues to sweep the nation, physicians have an even greater responsibility to stay home from work while sick, argues Angira Patel, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical education at Chicago-based Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a STAT op-ed.

Over 80 percent of physicians and advanced practitioners admitted to working sick at least once in the preceding year, according to a survey in JAMA Pediatrics. Dr. Patel, who admits she has gone to work sick, said she has also been complicit a number of other times and seen physician colleagues work through illnesses without going home.

Physicians said they went to work sick because they did not want to let down colleagues or patients, had concerns about staffing, feared being ostracized by colleagues and worried about the continuity of care.

Here are four insights on why physicians should stop working while sick, according to Dr. Patel.

1. Hospital organizations and health institutions must have systems in place that allow physicians to stay home, Dr. Patel wrote. For example, these organizations could reschedule nonemergency cases in the hospital or implement a stronger sick-call system.

2. Medical professionals must work to eliminate the stigma attached to staying home sick. "We must challenge ourselves and each other to not think poorly of colleagues who choose to stay home because they are ill," Dr. Patel wrote. "In addition to decreasing the spread of illness, the goal should also be to advocate for the well-being of physicians."

3. Maintaining a culture where physicians feel they can stay away from work while sick is particularly important when training young physicians, who experience far greater pressure to meet expectations. For example, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education recognizes this and expects trainees to be "fit for duty" as a core competency of professionalism, meaning they must be rested and alert. However, it also means not spreading illnesses to patients. Dr. Patel argues this culture must be supported across physician groups to truly prevent harm on patients' or physicians' well-being.

4. Physicians must not only recognize their responsibility to their patients to stay home when sick, but must work to begin changing this "martyr culture" for workers in other fields, Dr. Patel argues. "Pain compromises us, and communicable diseases are more communicable among people who are already seeking medical attention."

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