Zweli Mkhize launches strategy to protect health workers

17 September 2020 - 17:29 By mpumzi zuzile
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize opened a webinar marking World Patient Safety Day on Thursday. File photo.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize opened a webinar marking World Patient Safety Day on Thursday. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Phill Magakoe

Health minister Zweli Mkhize on Thursday launched a strategy to protect the health and safety of health workers.

Speaking at the webinar to mark World Patient Safety Day, he said the plan aims to protect the physical health of health workers through prevention and mitigation of Covid-19 infections by providing a safe physical environment.

A total of 32,429 health workers in SA had contracted the coronavirus as of September 11 and 257 had succumbed to the virus.

“World Patient Safety Day is a fitting opportunity to launch this strategy, which seeks to protect both the physical and mental health of front-line health workers and acknowledges their need for social support,” said Mkhize.

The strategy seeks to promote mental health of health workers through psychological support and to provide necessary social support, he said.

“It focuses on educating and training health workers to manage Covid-19 cases and implement occupational health and safety protocols. And it recognises the importance of communication among health workers.”

Mkhize said the strategy incorporates key infection prevention and control provisions that protect the physical health of health workers. These include:

  • patient placement;
  • sufficient ventilation in facilities;
  • hand hygiene;
  • environmental cleaning; and
  • wearing of personal protective clothing appropriate to the task being performed.

“We have insisted that every province, every district and every facility must have active, well-functioning occupational health and safety committees to ensure that there is adequate medical surveillance of health workers, regular risk assessments being undertaken at the workplace, and that risk mitigation measures are implemented,” he said.

The mental health of health workers should be promoted through psycho-education, creating a culture of compassionate leadership, and strengthening team coherence at all levels of the health-care system, he said.

“When it comes to social support, health workers should be engaged about their needs, concerns and possible solutions. Probable priorities are child care, safe transport arrangements, and options for quarantining or isolation of health workers so that their families are protected.

“Perhaps it is not widely appreciated that the health workers not only took on board a significant risk to themselves but also increased the infection risk to their families.

“For months, our health workers have waged an exhausting battle to do their utmost for their patients, to preserve their own physical and mental strength, and to keep their family members safe.”

He said talks with unions in recent days had highlighted issues that “need to be looked at more sensitively” and said he welcomed better communication with unions in order “to shine light on some of our blind spots — because the overarching interest of all of us is the safety of workers”.

Deputy general secretary of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) Daniel Manamela endorsed Mkhize’s call for empowered occupational health and safety committees, stressing the need for strong participation of elected worker representatives.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) representative in the country Dr Owen Kaluwa  gave the assurance that his organisation would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with SA.

The Healthcare Workers Care Network’s Dr Caroline Lee said there was much work to be done in creating secure working environments.

“It is not enough to thank health workers and hail them as heroes. It is time to start taking care of them,” Lee said.

Prof Shaheen Mehtar from the University of Stellenbosch and the Infection Control Africa Network called for the building of infection prevention and control (IPC) structures at national, provincial and facility levels.

Mehtar stressed that IPC was a factor in every single contact between health workers and patients — and since the spread of infection incurs costs, it would be a wise investment in cost-effective health care.

She indicated that a pilot study among health-care workers who had Covid-19 showed that 81% of those in hospitals and 63% in clinics had been exposed to someone with a confirmed infection and nearly all were wearing masks at the time.

The webinar was co-hosted by the department of health and WHO SA and supported by a range of organisations, including provincial health departments, private hospital groups, health worker associations and unions, statutory health bodies and organisations representing patient groups.