SAN DIEGO — Nearly all doctors in a new study say they would go to work while sick with a cold, and more than a third say they would work if they had the flu.
The findings are based on a survey of 474 doctors at an academic hospital in California who were at various stages in their medical careers. The doctors were asked whether they'd be willing to work if they certain symptoms or conditions.
A full 96 percent said they would work if they had symptoms of a cold, 77 percent said they would work if they had diarrhea, 54 percent said they would work if they were vomiting and 36 percent said they would work even if they knew for sure that they had the flu.
In addition, about half said they would work if they had a fever between 101 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit (38 to 39 degrees Celsius), and a quarter said they would work with a fever higher than 103 degrees, according to the study, which was presented Thursday (Oct. 8) here at IDWeek 2015, a meeting of several organizations focused on infectious diseases.
When doctors come to work despite having infectious diseases, they risk infecting their patients or their colleagues. But many doctors in the survey said they felt bad about staying home because it could mean more work for their colleagues, the study found.
"A lot of it had to do with feeling guilty, that your colleagues are going to come and take on the work if you aren't there, or that your patients are going to suffer if you're not there," said study researcher Dr. Shruti K. Gohil, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center. [7 Medical Myths Even Doctors Believe]
The culture around physicians' work also affects decisions to come in when sick. "There's such a strong sense of work ethic in physicians, and strong sense of duty that we have," said study researcher Dr. Kimberly K. Truong, a resident physician at UC Irvine. Doctors may also feel that their superiors will think less of them if they don't come to work, the researchers said.
Early-career doctors — those in their medical residency training — were the most likely to say they would work while sick with the flu, whereas attending physicians, who have more training, were the least likely to say they would work with the flu, according to the researchers.
Those who work in emergency medicine or surgery were also more likely than those in other specialties to say they would work while sick, the study found.
Although other studies have found that many doctors work while sick, Truong said she was surprised to find that only 30 percent of doctors in the survey said they would wear the appropriate protective gear, such as a face mask, if they were working while sick with the flu.
Many of the doctors in the survey said they would have an easier time staying home while sick if their superior told them to go home, or if they knew that their hospital leadership supported them staying home.
Doctors also wanted more specific guidelines about when to stay home — for example, how high should their fever be, or for how long can they have a persistent cough and still go to work?
As a result of the survey, the researchers' institution sent out an email saying that their hospital leadership supported doctors staying home while sick, and outlined the types of symptoms that would warrant taking time off.
Gohil said that other institutions might benefit from similar protocol.
"I think no one wants to do anything that would hurt their co-workers or that would hurt patients," Gohil said. "It's just a matter of education and consciousness about specifically what types of illnesses are problematic.