Protect health workers to save patients, WHO reiterates on World Patient Safety Day

17 September 2020

COVID-19 has reminded the world of the vital role health workers play in relieving suffering and saving lives, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said, underlining the need to ensure their safety and protection. 

“No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

Towards that end, to ensure health workers have the safe working conditions, training, pay and respect they deserve, the UN health agency released the Health Worker Safety Charter, on Thursday, coinciding with the World Patient Safety Day

The Charter calls on governments and those running health services at local levels to take five actions to better protect health workers.  

The actions include protecting health workers from violence; improving their mental health; protecting them from physical and biological hazards; advancing national programmes for health worker safety; and connecting health worker safety policies to existing patient safety policies. 

Read the full text of Health Worker Safety Charter

In addition to the Charter, WHO has also outlined specific World Patient Safety Day 2020 goals for health care leaders to invest in, measure, and improve health worker safety over the next year.  

The goals are intended for health care facilities to address five areas: preventing sharps injuries; reducing work-related stress and burnout; improving the use of personal protective equipment; promoting zero tolerance to violence against health workers; and reporting and analyzing serious safety related incidents.   

Health workers at much higher risk of COVID

COVID-19 has not only increased the risk of infection and illness among health workers and their families, it has also exposed them to very high levels of psychological stress. 

Although not representative, data from many countries indicate that COVID-19 infections among health workers are far greater than those in the general population, said WHO. 

They represent less than 3 per cent of the population in the large majority of countries and less than 2 per cent in almost all low- and middle-income countries, but around 14 per cent of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers, with the proportion as high as 35 per cent in some countries. 

Thousands of health workers infected with COVID-19 have lost their lives. 

WHO Video | Healthcare workers are at risk.

However, with limited quantity and quality of data, it is not possible to establish whether health workers were infected in the work place or in community settings, according to the UN health agency.  

Added psychological stress 

In addition to physical risks, the pandemic has placed extraordinary levels of psychological stress on health workers exposed to high-demand settings for long hours, living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family and facing social stigmatization.  

Before COVID-19 hit, medical professionals were already at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world, said WHO, adding that a recent review of health care professionals found one in four reported depression and anxiety, and one in three suffered insomnia during the global health crisis. 

WHO also highlighted an “alarming rise” in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19. 

They have had to bear with assaults and armed attacks, physical and psychological threats, denial of services, eviction from their homes, and stigma, obstructions and cyber attacks. 

© UNICEF/Samir Karahoda
A little patient, held by two health workers, receives a routine vaccine in Kosovo.

World Patient Safety Day 

Observed annually on 17 September, the World Patient Safety Day recognizes patient safety as a global health priority and underlines the need to ensure the safety of patients while receiving care. 

The Day was established in 2019 by the World Health Assembly, which called for global solidarity and concerted action by all countries and international partners to improve patient safety. The Day also brings together patients, families, caregivers, communities, health workers, health care leaders and policy-makers to show their commitment to patient safety.  

This year, the Day is being commemorated under the theme, “Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety.” 


♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

First Person: Pakistan health worker commits to polio fight, despite COVID fears

Despite suffering the after-effects of the COVID-19 virus, Husna Gul, a staff member with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Pakistan, is committed to ensuring that as many children as possible are vaccinated against the devastating consequences of polio, which can cause muscle-wasting, paralysis and death. 

UN salutes real-life heroes doing ‘extraordinary things, in extraordinary times’

Marking World Humanitarian Day, top UN officials are honouring the workers overcoming “huge challenges” to save and improve the lives of millions of women, men and children, hit hard by crises and the COVID-19 pandemic.