I don’t know about you, but I was relieved to read that nurse Pauline Cafferkey had been cleared of misconduct by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) last week. You’ll remember that she contracted the Ebola virus while working in Sierra Leone, and was accused of concealing that she had a high temperature when she returned to the UK.
Obviously, the risk of Ebola spreading in the UK has to be taken very seriously. But in my book, the nursing and medical staff who went to contagion areas in Africa are heroes who risked their lives to help save others.
All this set me thinking about what pharmacists and pharmacy staff should do if they are unwell. From a professional perspective, all healthcare regulators have similar standards. The General Pharmaceutical Society’s (GPhC) standards say registrants must promptly tell the GPhC, their employer and all relevant authorities about anything that may mean they are not fit to practise because of ill health.
Even if the registrant feels fighting fit and able to carry on, it is plainly important that patients are not put at risk. Pharmacy staff will often be determined to power through rather than let patients down, but this dedication has to be balanced against the risk to patients and the public if a pharmacist or pharmacy employee is suffering from something contagious.
Healthcare professionals have to make a decision whether to come to work. Employers may also have to exercise judgement whether to tell an employee whether to go home, even if this means the pharmacy has to be closed.
However, employers may sometimes find themselves in a difficult position, because an employee’s underlying condition may be a disability; and employers will not want to face a claim for discrimination if they make the wrong call. For example, if an employee’s condition is manageable without putting patients and the public at undue risk, sending the employee home could be unlawful – and involve an expensive compensation claim.
If Pauline Cafferkey had been found to have lied about having a temperature, the NMC would have taken a very serious view – both because its primary function, like that of the GPhC, is to protect the public, and because honesty is regarded as a fundamental tenet of being a healthcare professional. The dismissal of the case against her reassures us that we can still regard her as a healthcare hero, not a villain.
David Reissner is senior healthcare partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)