The elephant in the room of this pandemic is long COVID, and doctors aren't immune to it. A report conducted by the British Medical Association (BMA) and published in The BMJ is a worrying read: 60% of doctors with this diagnosis said that they get tired when going about their day-to-day activities. Just under 20% admit to fatigue so debilitating that they can no longer work. Yet, just 31% currently have a full-time job, 46% less than before being diagnosed with the disease.
This figure would be alarming in any profession, but when we're talking about doctors, it raises fears that this chronic condition could become another fly in the ointment for healthcare systems around the world, which are in desperate need of fit and healthy doctors. In the United Kingdom alone, it was estimated in January that the number of healthcare workers off work due to long COVID was between 5000 and 10,000.
Doctors, nurses, and obstetricians all seem especially susceptible, perhaps due to having greater exposure to the virus. In the United Kingdom, these healthcare professionals, together with social workers, are seven times more likely than any other professional to have had a serious form of COVID-19. That's why the BMA is calling for even greater protection for those people who, through their job, risk their lives to save others. Just 11% of people questioned had access to FFP2 face masks at the time they became sick. And now, with the widespread belief that the pandemic is over, we seem to have gone back to the beginning, as if the experiences we lived have taught us nothing. This is despite the renewed recommendation to wear a mask, at least in hospitals and healthcare facilities, in light of the uptick in cases.
The BMA is also asking the government and private healthcare employers to provide practical support to employees battling symptoms of long COVID, especially asthenia, headaches, muscle pain, neuropathy, and breathing difficulties. To recognize this chronic condition as an occupational illness, we first need to agree on a definition that covers all of the symptoms of this elusive and debilitating disease.
Sufferers must, therefore, be offered the chance to access physical and mental health services for a full-body health check and any diagnostic tests and treatments deemed necessary. Yet, almost half of those questioned report having never been referred to a specialist long-COVID clinic.
Finally, the BMA calls for the return to work to be made easier and safer for workers with long COVID, with a flexible approach taken to any role reallocations, shift changes, and so on.
The issue is not trivial; nearly half of those interviewed reported a significant drop in earnings after being diagnosed with long COVID, or even a complete loss of income for those no longer able to work at all.
So, what's the situation in Italy? The impact of this chronic condition, which affects nearly 65 million people around the world, seems to us to have been grossly underestimated. Data are scarce at a population level and even more so for the subgroup in question here: doctors. Sadly, this is also the group of sufferers who are most likely not to take this condition seriously. But for those medics wishing to help their patients with long COVID, there is a section on the Italian health institute's website dedicated to good clinical practice to be followed in handling such patients. It also includes a useful map of all regional clinics in Italy to which they can refer these patients.
This article was translated from Univadis Italy, which is part of the Medscape professional network.