S'pore healthcare workers under strain from flu season, Omicron, resignations and insufficient rest: Union

Around 1,500 healthcare workers had resigned in the first half of 2021, compared with 2,000 annually pre-pandemic. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Flu season, colleagues quitting, more people getting infected by the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and insufficient rest - all these have put healthcare workers under strain, a healthcare union chief told The Straits Times.

So, it is welcome news that public healthcare workers can now use their hospitalisation leave instead of outpatient sick leave when they are down with acute respiratory infection, said Ms K. Thanaletchimi, president of the Healthcare Services Employees' Union.

The union had made this request so that healthcare workers would not have to take unpaid leave if they run out of sick leave.

On Monday, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung wrote a note to public hospital and polyclinic workers, saying that their sick leave can be recorded as hospitalisation leave in the coming days.

Close to 70,000 healthcare workers in the three public health clusters will benefit from this. The policy will be reviewed in March to be in sync with the Covid-19 situation then, said Ms Thanaletchimi.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Wednesday night (Feb 23) that about 40 Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel - mainly medics and some doctors - will be deployed at Accident & Emergency Departments to deal with the recent surge in cases.

“This is a national effort, and the SAF will do its part to deal with the pandemic,” he said.

“We’re in a tight situation, that’s the honest truth,” said Ms Thanaletchimi on Wednesday, adding that there are a number of reasons why healthcare workers have been more taxed than usual recently.

"We are really short of staff. They are affected by Omicron, their children and loved ones are affected by Omicron, and they need time off to care for them. It's also flu season."

Healthcare workers have also been called back to work on their rest days, leading to improper and insufficient rest. To make things worse, quite a number of foreign healthcare workers have resigned as well, said Ms Thanaletchimi.

Government figures announced in November last year showed that around 1,500 healthcare workers resigned in the first half of 2021, compared with 2,000 annually pre-pandemic.

These included about 500 foreign doctors and nurses - about the same number as the whole of 2020, and slightly under the total of 600 for the whole of 2019.

Clinics and hospitals are deluged with Covid-19 patients whose employers insist on them producing a medical certificate (MC), despite the authorities saying this is unnecessary.

"Mild cases can do self-recovery, but they come to the clinics, they're crowding even the Accident & Emergency department, causing others to have their treatment delayed," Ms Thanaletchimi said.

"We need the cooperation of everyone, including employers, to not insist on asking for MCs. Have a thought for healthcare workers."

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With more healthcare workers falling ill lately, some had expressed concern that they would use up their outpatient medical leave too quickly, said Ms Thanaletchimi.

Healthcare workers have 14 days of outpatient sick leave and 46 days of hospitalisation leave, but each time they see a doctor for an acute respiratory infection, most are given three days of MC to ensure they are fully recovered, out of concern for their patients.

So, on Feb 19, given the high number of Covid-19 cases and the strain on the healthcare system, the union met with Mr Ong to raise their concerns and suggestions.

The Health Minister's announcement will benefit healthcare workers for two main reasons, Ms Thanaletchimi said.

First, it will allow those who are ill to rest and recover properly. "We're treating the sick - so we have to be well."

Second, it will give healthy workers peace of mind so they are able to go about their duties without having to worry about having their annual leave and no pay leave deducted.

Ms Thanaletchimi said: "This will help clear their minds, overcome fear and anxiety, and allow them to perform better. That's the least we can do. It's important to show that we hear them, care for them and act on it."

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