Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the term ‘PPE’ was unlikely to hit the headlines in major news stories.
But Personal Protective Equipment is now a key factor in the global battle against coronavirus – the healthcare industry has battled to secure supplies as demand has rocketed, and it has become a political issue as governments try to keep their populations safe.
PPE not only protects patients but also the health workers who treat them – and this is the focus of the World Health Organization’s second annual World Patient Safety Day.
Its slogan to mark this year’s event – Thursday 17 September 2020 – is “Safe health workers, safe patients”, which has also been a major goal for Australia’s private healthcare providers.
“As the pandemic was spreading through Europe earlier this year, it became obvious that keeping our staff safe from COVID-19 was critical to keeping our patients safe,” said Dr Lachlan Henderson, Group Chief Executive of Epworth HealthCare.
“In our pandemic planning, we implemented extra safety precautions such as introducing dedicated roles like Personal Protective Equipment spotters in March.”
The spotter’s role is to check and supervise staff putting on and taking off PPE (known as ‘donning and doffing’) to ensure everyone is safe.
“The most dangerous part for staff is the taking off of PPE – that’s when spotters will watch you like a hawk,” Epworth’s Director of Clinical Education and Simulation Tess Vawser said.
“You can’t touch the outside of the gown, mask and shield. You have to remove the gown only by the inside and then roll it away from you. Hand hygiene is performed at every step.”
Epworth has been on the frontline in Australia’s hardest-hit state, Victoria, which has accounted for three-quarters of the country’s COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Supply of PPE has been put to the test, and Australia’s largest dedicated cancer care provider – Icon Cancer Centre – had to get creative when it faced an urgent need for infection control gowns across its 30 nationwide clinics.
With usual supply channels exhausted, it approached Melbourne uniform supplier Thread Apparel, which had never produced this type of garment.
Icon’s advance order for 5,000 gowns helped to fund the purchase of three ultrasonic seam-welding machines, which offer superior infection control compared to hand-sewn garments.
The recyclable gowns also have a reduced environmental impact – no extra crude oil-based Polypropylene is used to make them – and Icon has ordered another 10,000.
“The impact of locally available, high-quality PPE during this evolving time cannot be underestimated,” Thread Apparel director Theodore Hamalis said.
“This has been particularly beneficial for Icon in their mission to protect patients and their staff while continuing to provide world-class cancer care, and has created more jobs for Australian workers in a time of need.”
PPE is just one area where hospitals are working to safeguard workers and patients.
Ramsay, Australia’s largest private healthcare provider, brought forward the release of a new app which helps protect staff from the spread of germs by reducing physical contact with shared time-management equipment.
It has also produced a new set of distancing guidelines for visitors to its 70-plus hospitals, pharmacies, day surgeries and clinics nationwide.
The UnitingCare Group has installed temperature screening devices at its several Queensland hospitals, which staff use to assess visitors for possible COVID-19 infections.
Meanwhile, Sydney Adventist Hospital has invested in a super-cleaning robot called Thor that uses ultra-violet light to eradicate germs that conventional methods cannot reach.
It uses technology that eliminated the COVID-19 virus in minutes during a recent study by Boston University in the United States.
Epworth has formed an internal response team to ensure any healthcare worker exposed to COVID-19 is cared for clinically, and to immediately begin contact tracing and identification of potential exposures.
Facemasks are provided for all patients, visitors, employees and doctors across Epworth’s hospitals, which have signs in communal staff areas to reinforce the need for physical distancing.
Epworth and Ramsay have both implemented ‘Speak Up for Safety’ programs, which encourage staff to raise concerns if they notice potentially risky behaviour.
“Since last December, all of our employees and doctors have been undergoing training, regardless of whether they are on our frontline, or in a support or corporate role,” said Adjunct Professor Paula Stephenson, Epworth’s Executive Director Clinical Services and Chief Nursing Officer.
“The program addresses behaviours that might undermine our safety and aims to build on a culture where all staff feel safe and supported to speak up for patient safety.”