Just what you need during flu season. The guy next to you – he's sneezing. He's sniffling. He's coughing. He's got a nose like Rudolph the reindeer. He's … your doctor?
The chances of that happening are better than you might think, according to a new study published this month in the American Journal of Infection Control.
Four in 10 health-care professionals report to work while experiencing influenza-like symptoms, working a median of three days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings were based on a survey of nearly 2,000 health-care workers.
"The statistics are alarming," said lead researcher Sophie Chiu, of the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "At least one earlier study has shown that patients who are exposed to a health-care worker who is sick are five times more likely to get a health-care-associated infection."
Hospital-based health-care professionals had a higher rate of working with flu-like illness — 49 percent — compared with those who work at long-term-care facilities such as nursing homes (43 percent), the study found.
Among the biggest offenders, according to the survey, were physicians (about 63 percent) and pharmacists (more than 67 percent). Nurse practitioners and physician assistants came in lower at almost 38 percent.
And their excuses were what you'd expect. Of the health-care workers surveyed, many said that they thought they could still perform their job duties, or that they weren't feeling "bad enough" to stay home. Some didn't think they were contagious. Others reported that they couldn't find someone to take their shift.
Local hospitals, of course, know their staff shouldn't be reporting to work while sick. Most say their policy is for employees, including those without direct patient contact, to stay home if they feel ill, especially if it's something contagious such as the flu.
To prevent flu-like symptoms, many local hospitals, as is commonly the case with health-care institutions, require employees to get flu shots. This practice is mandatory unless a professional has a compelling medical reason to avoid vaccination.
"Our time off is robust so that employees have the ability to stay home when ill," said Jennifer Lee, spokeswoman for Temple University Hospital.
Quoting institution policy, Cooper University Hospital spokeswoman Wendy Marano said a worker "infected with a potential communicable disease shall not engage in any activity that is known to be a risk to others in the workplace."
The same goes for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"Those experiencing the acute onset of fever, respiratory symptoms and/or gastroenterological symptoms are not permitted to return to work until they have not run a fever 24 hours without use of fever-reducing medications and they have experienced significant reduction in associated symptoms," said hospital spokeswoman Emily DiTomo.
Neil Fishman, an infectious-disease physician and the chief medical officer for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said if workers come in sick, their immediate supervisor is supposed to send them to the occupational medicine department to be checked out. Chances are, those folks will send them home.
Still, what hospital is going to say it's OK for workers to come in flinging their germs around? None. But the CDC's survey numbers aren't lying.
"It's a chronic issue that hospitals have been facing over the years – presenteeism – for whatever reason. People insist on coming to work when they're sick," Fishman said.
Fishman added that he doesn't believe workers disobey policy out of malice, but out of dedication to their job and their patients.
"Sometimes not taking care of your patients is the best way to help your patients if you're sick," Fishman said, "and that's the message we teach our employees."