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The emotional impact of needlestick injury

December 30, 2014

There is a rising awareness of occupational safety, which for healthcare organisations means it is the responsibility of the employer to safeguard their employees from the range of hazards and risks they are exposed to while in their role. During the working day, healthcare workers are can face multiple hazards and dangers, but one of the most common and widespread is that of needlestick injuries.

Medical sharps and needles are commonplace for many professionals who work in the healthcare industry, and are vital for a large portion of their work, especially for surgeons, nurses and doctors. This makes them unavoidable but there are several measures that employers can take to ensure the risk is substantially lower for the healthcare workers using them. 

These interventions have been outlined by legislation around the world, with recent laws being implemented across the European Union to ensure all healthcare employers are doing everything within their means to protect members of staff and the patients they treat. 

Safety-engineered devices can substantially lower, and sometimes completely eradicate, the risk of injury for healthcare workers. This, combined with other measures such as appropriate and regular training, can make it far less likely that anyone is injured within hospitals from medical sharps or needles.

This is important for healthcare organisations for a whole host of reasons, with the financial burden of such injuries being a real burden for nations across the world. However, arguably of more importance is the emotional and psychological effect needlestick injuries can have on members of staff.

Suffering a percutaneous injury puts the victim at risk of being exposed to bloodborne pathogens, which can result in them contracting diseases like HIV or hepatitis. These infections can be life-changing and can severely impede a healthcare worker's ability to fulfill their role. However, even without the diagnosis of a serious illness, the emotional impact of a needlestick injury can be significant.

Recent research, published in the journal of Occupational Medicine, stated that the effect of such an injury is comparable to that suffered from being involved in a car accident. A team from the University of Chester, UK, aimed to analyse the psychological effects of needlestick injuries. They accomplished this by comparing levels of depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in people who had suffered an injury from sharps, and compared these results to people who had experienced a different psychiatric trauma.

Although none of the people who had suffered sharps injuries had contracted an infection, the team found they experienced psychiatric illness and distress as a result of their wound. This lasted nearly two months longer for every month the patient waited for test results, the study revealed.

Further research is needed to measure the psychiatric and physical effects of needlestick injuries, according to the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM). 

Healthcare organisations need to ensure that they not only take the right measures to protect their employees from suffering an injury, but make sure the appropriate protocol is in place to support staff should such an incident occur. This should include, but is not exclusive to, simple and clear reporting procedures, psychological support and counselling, and timely test results.

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