Protecting Your Patients, Your Employees, and Yourself in the Midst of an Outbreak
By Practice Growth March 13, 2020
On March 11, the World Health Organization’s Director General declared coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, a pandemic. “Pandemic” isn’t a word that the WHO uses loosely. It’s a term that’s used to describe an epidemic that spreads across large regions. Your practice’s “usual” protocols were likely designed to strike a balance between protection and efficiency, in the midst of a pandemic, though, you’ll need to tip the scales a little. Here are six tips to help you, your patients, and your employees stay safe through the course of COVID-19 pandemic:
Viruses, like the one that causes the novel coronavirus disease, can spread from person-to-person. While we don’t fully understand the transmission of COVID-19, it seems to spread most often between people who are physically close to each other (within six feet or so) through respiratory droplets produced by coughing and sneezing.
The CDC recommends frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It’s not always convenient to slip away to the washroom between patients. If employees aren’t able to wash their hands as often as they’d like, advise them to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60%-95% alcohol between washes.
Coughing into the hand is a definite “no” - especially in a practice environment where there’s plenty of shared surfaces and direct contact. Without singling out any employees with bad habits, remind your team (as a whole) to cough and sneeze into their inner elbows - an area recently termed the “cough pocket” in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In line with the previous recommendation to encourage hand sanitizing between washes, be sure that every employee and patient has convenient access to hand sanitizer. Place bottles (or even better, touchless sanitizing stations) in each office, at the entry door, at the reception desk, in the waiting area, and in staff-only spaces, like lunch and filing rooms.
While COVID-19, like many other viruses, travels most readily through direct contact, researchers believe that it may also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. That is, if an infected person touches something, they can leave traces of the virus that another person can pick up when they touch that same object or surface. The virus may then enter the person’s body through the mouth, nose, or eyes.
Your practice should undergo a thorough cleaning at the end of each day. Beyond that, employees should wipe down objects and surfaces in their workspaces as often as their schedule allows. Provide disposable, alcohol-based wipes to make cleaning more convenient. Surfaces and equipment that come into direct contact with patients should be wiped down with alcohol after every patient. If wait times are a concern, don’t shy away from wiping down equipment while a patient is in the office. An employee whose role involves an introductory spiel can sanitize equipment while explaining the next steps. For the most part, patients will appreciate seeing that practice employees are taking the necessary measures to keep them safe.
Wipe down high-contact surfaces like coffee machines, snack bars, and doorknobs as often as you can. If it’s difficult for one person to stay on top of cleaning common areas like waiting rooms, make it a team effort, and ask every employee to contribute to the effort when they can.
Employees hesitate to ask for time off, especially if they hold an essential role or they’re suddenly ill and can’t give advance notice. To alleviate the obligation your employees might feel to push through and work through their symptoms, consider making temporary adjustments to your sick time policies:
- Don’t require a sick note. Healthcare professionals are asking people who may have COVID-19 not to go to clinics and hospitals, where they can spread the virus.
- Make sure staff are aware that they may have to fill in and have a plan in place. Just-in-case cross-training will help your team manage if an essential employee needs to call in sick.
- Permit time off for staff who have to care for sick family members. If an employee needs to stay home to care for a sick loved one, facilitate remote work, where possible.
When a patient books an appointment, let them know that they needn’t feel bad about rescheduling if they feel ill. If your practice sends appointment confirmation emails, include a note about rescheduling. Some patients may resist rescheduling an appointment if your practice has a strict cancellation policy. To prevent patients who may have COVID-19 from infecting others, consider temporarily dropping your cancellation policy.
Misinformation can be dangerous. Ensure all employees are up-to-date on the status of the outbreak and make sure they’re aware of current recommendations. If necessary, hold weekly staff meetings to discuss new information. The CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an excellent resource to help you stay informed.