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More Than Half of Resident Docs Have Worked While Sick: Study

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 19 (HealthDay News) -- More than 50 percent of resident doctors report that they have worked at least once when they were sick with flu-like symptoms.

And 16 percent said they worked sick at least three times in the past year, a new survey finds.

"Earlier studies showed that residents come to work when they are sick, and we wanted to find out why do they work when they're sick," said survey co-author Dr. Valerie Press, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago.

One possibility was they are forced to work when they're sick and another is that it might be part of their professional work ethic, she said.

"We are taught to put the patients' needs before our own, but that sometimes can be detrimental to both the patient and the doctor," Press added.

The reason that most residents said they worked when they were sick was because they didn't want to inconvenience their colleagues, but also they felt a strong allegiance to the patient, she said. And that feeling was strongest among those who had been residents longer.

"A lot of people accuse this generation of not being professional and putting their needs above the patient's needs," Press said. "But here's an example of the old-school work ethic at play."

The downside to working while sick is that one can make others, patients included, sick and oneself sicker, Press said. "In addition, your judgment may be clouded and you may not make the best decisions," she said.

Press said there needs to be an environment that allows residents to stay out when they're sick and assess their ability to work. "In addition, residents should feel they can take the day off when they are sick," she said.

The report was published in the June 18 online edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

For the study, Press and colleagues surveyed 150 residents, asking whether or not they worked when they were sick.

Seventy-seven said they had worked at least once when they had flu-like symptoms and 24 said they worked while sick at least three times.

Dr. Deborah Grady, who wrote an accompanying editor's note in the journal, said that "it's likely that doctors tend to work while they're sick more than they probably should."

"At the same time, it's more dangerous for doctors to work when they're sick," said Grady, associate dean for clinical and translational research and director of the Women's Health Clinical Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

Doctors who do this run the risk of passing their flu or cold on to patients, some of whom are frail and elderly, Grady said. Since the cause of the illness usually isn't known, the consequences could be more serious if it's not just a cold. "Most doctors would stay home if they have a fever, but that's not really a great way to tell how sick you are," she added.

"Doctors feel compelled to work if they don't feel well," Grady said. "If they don't, then they have to cancel appointments and somebody has to cover for [them]. So, we feel a responsibility to work even if we don't feel very well."

More information

For more information on caring for yourself when sick with the flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Valerie G. Press, M.D., M.P.H., pediatrician, University of Chicago; Deborah Gordon, M.D., M.P.H., professor, medicine, associate dean, clinical and translational research, and director, Women's Health Clinical Research Center, University of California, San Francisco; June 18, 2012, Archives of Internal Medicine, online

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