PAHO launches health worker safety campaign on World Patient Safety Day

17 Sep 2020

Washington, September 17, 2020 (PAHO) – The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced the launch of a regional campaign to improve the safety of health workers, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign, which marks the observance of World Patient Safety Day, emphasizes the importance of health worker safety as a priority for patient safety.

“Today, as we observe World Patient Safety Day, I ask everyone to join the call to action to speak up for health workers’ safety,” said PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne.

“I call on our Member States and their partners to ensure safe and decent working conditions for health workers, access to training and protective equipment, and equal pay,” especially for women who make up almost 75% of the health workforce and face extra burdens.

The objectives of World Patient Safety Day are to enhance global understanding of patient safety, increase public engagement in the safety of health care and promote global actions to enhance patient safety and reduce patient harm. Its theme is Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety, the slogan is “Safe health workers, Safe patients,” and the call to action is “Speak up for health worker safety! “

PAHO is urging partners and countries to develop national and local campaigns based on the regional campaign, to support and observe the Day to make it successful, and to take urgent action to recognize health worker safety as a prerequisite for patient safety and quality of care.

Messages for health workers in the campaign include: Your own safety starts with you: Take care of your physical and psychological health; Protect your safety and that of the people you care for; Ensure you are trained and aware of infection prevention and control and implement appropriate measures; Proactively contribute to building and strengthening a safety culture at work;  Improve your knowledge, skills, and competencies for safety in health care; Know your rights and responsibilities and call for a safe work environment and stable and decent employment conditions, including equal pay; Always report safety risks, violence, harassment, or threats to the authorities, and Promote and implement innovative safety practices within your organization

The World Health Organization developed a Health Worker Safety Charter as a step “towards ensuring that health workers have the safe working conditions, the training, the pay and the respect they deserve.”

The Charter, released today for World Patient Safety Day, calls on governments and those running health services at local levels to take five actions to better protect health workers. These include steps to protect health workers from violence; to improve their mental health; to protect them from physical and biological hazards; to advance national programs for health worker safety, and to connect health worker safety policies to existing patient safety policies.

The pandemic has also highlighted the extent to which protecting health workers is key to ensuring a functioning health system and a functioning society. While health workers represent less than 3% of the population in most countries, around 14% of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers. In some countries, the proportion can be as high as 35%. Thousands of health workers infected with COVID-19 have lost their lives worldwide.

In addition to physical risks, the pandemic has placed extraordinary levels of psychological stress on health workers exposed to high-demand settings for long hours, living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family and facing social stigmatization. Before COVID-19 hit, medical professionals were already at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world. A recent review of health care professionals found one in four reported depression and anxiety, and one in three suffered insomnia during COVID-19. WHO recently highlighted an alarming rise in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19.

Today, the Americas accounts for over half of the world’s cases and deaths from COVID-19. The pandemic has resulted in tragic loss of life, disproportionately impacting the poor and those with underlying health conditions, and devastating lives and livelihoods.  In our Region, all 54 countries and territories have been affected. They have responded by expanding and reorganizing their health facilities and networks, and enhancing their capacity, especially for critical care.

“Health workers and care-givers have been the cornerstone of this response. Many have risked their own lives to care for their patients. After months of operating in crisis mode, they are at higher risk of depression, anxiety and burnout. Many have been stigmatized and, some have been subjected to physical harm for reasons related to COVID-19,” Dr. Etienne said.

“Fortunately, we have also seen heartwarming displays of appreciation, with communities and the media recognizing health workers as heroes on the front lines of this pandemic,” she added.