Why doctors don’t call in sick when they should

Recent research from Florida Atlantic University and Cleveland State University have found a direct correlation between preventative health care and the number of paid sick leave days a worker gets. Workers with more than 10 paid sick days annually access preventative care more frequently than those without paid sick days.

Preventative care, in turn, leads to better overall mental and physical health. Doctors that are in private practice function like small business owners, when they are out for any reason, including sickness, they must pay overhead without collecting income.  Doctors in academic practices and those employed by hospitals may have sick days in their benefits that range from 2 to 3 weeks paid sick leave per annum.

However, most doctors never take any of their sick days.  This is not because doctors don’t get sick. Taking sick days is highly frowned upon in the medical world, and residents are taught from the start not to call in sick no matter what the impending illness might be.

If you live and work in the medical profession, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Half-way through my residency (pre 80-hour work week regulations), I called in sick and was asked if I was “sure” that I was “really” sick (I was, I had the flu with full-fledged vomiting and all the fixings). I did call in sick that day but never really did it again until this year (at the age of 46) when I had visible shingles.  Enough of the unspoken rule that “doctors don’t call in sick.”

Still commonplace

I’m at a point in my career now where I can call in sick and not worry whether or not my own impairment will result in being fired or given less hours. Unfortunately this isn’t the case with most doctors that I know, and I’m fairly certain that residents are still urged not to call in sick.

I’ve seen surgeons with the flu operate, stop to vomit, and continue operating. I’ve seen doctors walk into hospitals with sky-high fevers and strange diseases. I’ve seen doctors attached to IV bags sitting in hospital hallways mid-shift just to get through the rest of the day while beating back illness.

This insanity has to stop. Doctors everywhere are making people more sick by not calling in sick. Here’s what needs to happen in order to give doctors a break when it comes to resting, feeling better, and having permission to call in sick.

1. Responsibility. Doctors should cover for each other when one doctor is sick, another doctor in the same group should be able to fill a shift — creating a culture of support is imperative.

2. Patient education and understanding. Patients must understand that doctors are human and can call in sick. It’s not in anyone’s best interest when a sick doctor treats a sick patients.

3. Transparency. It’s commonplace for clinic or hospital staff to tell patients that doctors are busy, on-call, or out for other reasons when doctors take a sick day. Offices should be allowed to tell patients that a doctor has taken a sick day. This will help people to understand that doctors are not superhuman.

4. Self-care. Doctors should have their own primary care physicians, and should be responsible for routine health visits and measures such as colorectal screening, pap smears, mammograms, flu shots, etc.

5. Surgeons. Rescheduling an urgent surgery is difficult to do, but this is where a peer or partner network comes into vital play. One surgeon should be able to call in sick and know that a partner or peer can perform the necessary surgery. If surgery is elective, rescheduling on a day that the surgeon is healthy should not be taboo.

Jennifer Weiss is an orthopaedic surgeon and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jennifer Weiss MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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