Patient safety prospers when healthcare workers are well

This World Patient Safety Day we look at the importance of healthcare workers' physical and psychological wellbeing.

This year, World Patient Safety Day is on Thursday 17 September, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic the theme of health worker safety is certainly fitting.

Throughout this health crisis, NHS staff put themselves in harm's way to work long hours in intense conditions. Many were working in unfamiliar environments and endured the emotional and physical strains of the possibility of becoming ill themselves, the need to live apart from vulnerable loved ones and the necessity of wearing uncomfortable PPE. And the deaths of so many patients in such a short space of time inevitably caused feelings of helplessness and psychological strain.

A survey of 250 MDU members, including consultants, GPs, trainees, and staff grade doctors, found 70% of respondents' stress and anxiety levels had increased since the beginning of the pandemic, with 22% reporting they were feeling significantly worse.

This should concern us all, because doctors and healthcare professionals who are struggling with their own health are not going to be in the best shape to make complex clinical decisions, communicate effectively with colleagues and patients or recognise problems.

The link between practitioner health and patient safety is well established. For example, the GMC's annual report into the State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK last December included a wealth of research in this area, including the revelation that 28% of doctors in one survey said they had struggled to cope with their workload at least once a week, and that one sixth of doctors fell into the category of a high risk of burnout which left them at higher risk of making a clinical error.

As a medical defence organisation that supports and represents doctors, we know the distress adverse incidents cause our members, along with the medico-legal investigations that can follow, such as GMC complaints, disciplinary hearings, coroners' inquiries and criminal investigations. Sadly, it is often the case that the search for someone to blame overrides concerns about mitigating circumstances, including doctors' health.

We welcome the World Health Organisation's efforts to raise awareness about health worker safety as part of its World Patient Safety Day initiative. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to a safer working environment and some are the responsibility of the government or employers. In particular, there is a pressing need to ensure that all healthcare organisations move quickly to embrace a just and learning culture.

The MDU is committed to doing our bit, from our e-learning course for doctors on health and wellbeing to our peer support programme, which enables members to get support from a colleague who has recently undergone an investigation into their clinical practice.

And we continue to publish advice articles on our website and journals about how to cope with common causes of anxiety or concern, and less common but important ones such as violence in the workplace, as well as providing information about additional sources of support.

Our medico-legal advisers are on hand to help individual members and as doctors themselves, understand the pressures faced.

This page was correct at publication on 15/09/2020. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Mike Devlin, Interim Medical Editor

by Dr Michael Devlin LLM, MBA, FRCP, FRCGP, FFFLM MDU head of professional standards and liaison

Michael was an MDU medico-legal adviser for 15 years, latterly as head of medico-legal services, before taking up the new role of head of professional standards and liaison. He sat on the FFLM's academic committee and was previously treasurer, and an examiner for the MFFLM. He has published widely on medico-legal matters, and has significant experience in teaching and assessing knowledge in medico-legal subjects.