May 5, 2020
OUR HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS in direct contact with patients who are infected, or presumed to be infected, with COVID-19, are making the selfless decision to put the lives of others ahead of their own. Now, more than ever, they need to be propped up, cheered on and profoundly thanked.
But more importantly, they need to be protected—all of them.
The term “frontline worker” has become ubiquitous, a form of shorthand to refer only to doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, this shorthand is not limited to media coverage but has made its way into policies and procedures of healthcare institutions, regional health authorities and even provincial ministries of health. The consequences are potentially disastrous.
Medical Radiation Technologists (MRTs), respiratory therapists, custodial staff and others are working the frontlines but too often do not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) despite working regularly with COVID-19 patients. This puts them and their families at risk.
PPE should not be considered a “nice to have.” It is a must have.
MRTs are the frontline professionals responsible for producing vital medical images (using x-ray, Computed Tomography, Nuclear Medicine, MRI, Mammography and more) and for performing life-saving radiation therapy treatments. In the performance of their essential activities during this pandemic, many MRTs are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients in emergency departments, ICUs, or in instances where COVID-19 patients are sent directly to medical imaging departments for their examinations.
Recent observations from the University of Washington, showed that from a sample of 5,000 COVID-19 patients, 4,700 chest imaging exams were performed. In these instances, MRTs are the professionals who assist patients to ready and position themselves for scans, educating them and offering them comfort throughout the process.
All frontline professionals are equal, but some frontline professionals are more equal than others, it seems (appropriating George Orwell’s warning in Animal Farm).
Following several emails and calls from our MRTs from across the country, we were compelled to send a survey to our membership at the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists asking them two questions: Did they feel they had adequate access to PPE? And, if not, was PPE being distributed inequitably among front like workers in their workplace?
The responses should alarm all of us.
Of the roughly 3,000 responses received, nearly 40 per cent of MRTs felt they did not have adequate access to PPE. Of those, 60 per cent said that other frontline professionals were being given greater access to PPE. Variance in rates across provinces also reveals how MRTs are treated differently depending on where they work.
This is clearly unacceptable. The health and safety of MRTs and others on the front lines should not be protected less vigorously than any other frontline professionals. And those working in one province should not be protected less than those in another.
To leave any frontline workers with inadequate PPE is indefensible, even when it is in short supply.
The designation as a “frontline worker” must not depend on one’s professional title but their potential exposure to COVID-19. Risk should be determined by the procedure and the patient group being treated.
Access to adequate PPE must be addressed now, without delay.
Professional associations throughout healthcare should work together to take on this issue. We are all rowing in the same direction and inter-professionalism has never been more important.
Provincial governments must work together to ensure that hospitals, regional health authorities, clinics and long-term care facilities have consistent and equitable PPE policies. If this cannot be accomplished, the federal government should intervene.
Once we have reached the tail end of this first wave of the pandemic, we will need to address these gaps systematically in preparation for the next waves. Or the next pandemic.
This will not be the last time such choices will need to be made. We need to develop policies that are fair and consistent across the country -- and protect all our frontline workers.
Irving Gold is the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists.