Worker Safety Can Affect Health Care

Improving worker safety in the health care industry will help improve the quality of care that patients receive, according to Dr. John Eisenberg, administrator of the federal Agency for Health Care Policy and Research.

Eisenberg, who spoke Oct. 13 at a two-day conference devoted to the effect of working conditions on the quality of health care, said the connection between worker safety and patient health was one of the most important results of the conference. A concern raised by conference attendees is how lower staffing levels could affect health care quality. For example, overworked health care professionals would be at a greater risk of harming themselves or their patients due to fatigue or stress.

This connection is being addressed by a California law, which requires the state Department of Health to establish safe staffing levels at health care facilities. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will monitor this law's effect, said Jordan Barab, an OSHA special assistant.

The dual purpose of the Washington, D.C., conference, Eisenberg said, was to develop a research agenda and to determine what is known about the effects of working conditions on health care quality. The gathering attracted a diverse mixture of government and private-sector researchers and policy-makers.

Barab agreed with Eisenberg that there was a consensus among conference attendees that worker safety affects health care quality. But, Barab added, "There is not as much research as we would like to back this up."

As a result, both men suggested that more research needs to be done on the relationship between worker safety and patients' health. Results of this research should have wide ranging effects on the nation's health care system, Barab said, because hospitals are not the only place where patients receive care. Clinics, including those at work sites, nursing homes and even home-based health care workers using e-mail will need to appropriate these findings, he suggested.

Eisenberg also said he hopes people working at the policy and regulatory level will become more aware of the relationship between health care worker safety and overall health care quality.

The conference was sponsored by OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Veterans Health Administration and Eisenberg's agency.

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