Resiliency at the frontline: How African healthcare workers dealt with COVID-19 challenges

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African healthcare practictioners turned to strategies including focus groups to address anxiety and occupational safety concerns.

Healthcare practitioners in Africa were facing the COVID-19 pandemic as both individuals working in the healthcare system and as members of the population who were facing a global human challenge, said three panel speakers on the first day of Africa Health 2021.

During the session COVID-19 Resiliency at the Frontline, experts discussed the ways in which healthcare professionals at their hospitals dealt with the pandemic. They stressed the importance of providing mental support for workers in the industry.

“One of the key lessons from COVID-19 is to provide safety,” said Dr Elom Otchi, Technical Director at the Africa Institute of Healthcare, Quality, Safety and Accreditation. He added “Oftentimes we talk about patient safety, but if you look at the original framework for patient safety, it is occupational safety, which means the safety of providers.”

He explained that, at his hospital, a clinical psychologist developed an electronic form for all members of staff to fill in order to determine their level of anxiety. When they exceeded the normal level, a member of the psychologist team called the staff member.

“People are very anxious and would like to go to work, but they are concerned about how safe they are and also not putting their family at risk,” he added. 

Dr Lydia Okutoyi, Head of Department, Patient Safety and Quality Health Care, Kenyatta National Hospital, said that COVID-19 brought a lot of mental health issues, starting with the stigma that the staff had to face. The communities the healthcare provider lived in refused to interact with them, because they were frightened of the virus. In some cases, the panellists said some healthcare workers could not make it to work because the buses would not pick them up.

“The staff were seeing less patients but they were seeing really sick patients, so that itself brought the fear factor within them,” Dr Okutoyi said. 

The panellists discussed different ways that they handled the situation at their hospitals.

Dr Mary Adams, Director, AIC Kijabe Maternal Newborn Community Health Project in Kenya, said that in the early days of the virus, they ran focus groups among frontliners. They asked the staff to write what they wanted management to achieve on sticky notes. “Someone from the management would say what they could and couldn't do,” she said. They created a tracking system for both management and staff to see what had been achieved. 

“It was easy to forget the wins,” she said, with all that was going on.

The panellists said that COVID-19 has created a culture of collaboration within the healthcare system as there was no other option. Not only mental health was at stake, but also physical security as there were shortages of PPE equipment. Nonetheless, some hospitals did not have the rapid testing facilities. 

“Kijabe re-engineered its patient flow. We separated all patients with respiratory symptoms and we had to look at them as active Covid,” explained Dr Adams.

In some way, COVID-19 has helped these hospitals understand the importance of increasing capacity, sharing knowledge, and highlighting the role of the private sector. 

“This has been a wake up call for Africa, that we need to grow in some ways,” said Dr Okutyoi who ran a program at her hospital to increase knowledge capacity that attracted interest from abroad to help the staff learn new skills. 

The panellists said that COVID-19 has shed light on the strength and weakness of the healthcare system.

“Irrespective of the external environment and challenges, the healthcare system is still able to deliver the healthcare services that it was delivered,” said Dr Otchi on defining what a resilient healthcare system meant.

Register to attend Africa Health 2021 (25-29 October 2021) for free. 

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