The heart of safety: ensuring healthcare team member safety in a post-COVID era

The heart of safety: ensuring healthcare team member safety in a post-COVID era

Author
M. Bridget Duffy, MD
Date Published

When I donned my white coat and took the Hippocratic Oath to “First Do No Harm,” I would leave for work every day and pray that I didn’t hurt anyone that day.

My biggest fear was that some decision or action on my part would cause harm to my patients. Never did I have to worry that my own safety or the safety of my family would be at risk because of my career choice. Never did I have to be concerned that I might not have the equipment or technology to keep me safe as I provided care for my patients.

Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 crisis, today’s care team members have had to face that very reality. The consequential mental and physical toll on them will profoundly impact our nation’s healthcare system and the workforce of the future. My colleagues on the frontlines today have had to deal with a novel virus for which we were little prepared, leaving professionals whose whole sense of purpose comes from healing and “helping” feeling unable to help.

Many have had to become ‘doulas for dying,’ providing a loving presence at the bedside and connecting with patient’s loved ones who couldn’t be by their side due to safety restrictions.

COVID-19 exposed flaws in our health system and national health care infrastructure. Not only did we experience shortages of PPE and expose supply chain inadequacies, but we also discovered that our definitions of PPE (gowns, gloves, masks) failed to ensure that frontline care team members could communicate effectively with their teammates and with patients and families without the risk of infection.

That meant more contamination risk in donning and doffing PPE that hands-free communication tools could have prevented.

We also saw broad systemic inequities exposed as COVID-19 disproportionately impacted Black and brown community members, both from a mortality and economic perspective. We learned that racial injustices were also being experienced within our healthcare systems by many of our colleagues. Remarkably, our essential but too often “invisible” workers in housekeeping and food services – disproportionately people of colour – still put their lives on the line every day to care for patients and team members.

A movement to redefine safety for healthcare team members

As a physician whose career has been centered on making sure every human being has access to humane, compassionate, and competent care, and working for a company whose mission is to simplify and improve the lives of healthcare professionals and patients, I saw the need for a new movement in healthcare – one that broadens the definition of workplace safety and elevates team member safety and well-being to a top strategic priority for the nation.

With the support of the senior leadership at Vocera, my team and I quickly assembled a coalition of CEOs from leading health systems, diverse in background, geography, gender, and system type. It didn’t take any convincing. These leaders were seeing the same challenges we were and knew that the future of the nation’s healthcare systems depended on making physical and psychological safety and health justice our nation’s top priority.

Together, we drafted a Declaration of Principles that expands the definition of safety to include safeguarding psychological and emotional well-being of team members, promoting health justice by declaring equity and anti-racism as core components of safety, and ensuring physical safety, which includes a zero-harm program to eliminate workplace violence, both physical and verbal. This Declaration extends to all team members, from frontline clinicians to environmental services workers and back-office employees.

Since launching the Declaration in May, we have collaborated with the Institute for Health Improvement to ensure that we can identify and spread evidence- and experience-based practices that advance the six Principles, as well as the metrics that allow us to gauge progress.

I am profoundly grateful to our 10 founding CEOs who are making team member safety one of their top priorities as we rebuild from COVID-19. And I invite others to join the movement to ensure that no healthcare team member will have to sacrifice their personal safety, health, identity, or well-being to do their jobs and care for patients.

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