OPINION
03/12/2020 06:00 GMT | Updated 03/12/2020 08:44 GMT

Pregnant Doctors Like Me Are Still Being Put At Risk

The pandemic has shown that it is possible to adapt our working practices to ensure staff can be productive yet safe, writes Dr Ellen Welch.

Pregnant doctors around the UK have been raising concerns about workplace safety since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier this year, pregnant nurse Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong died of Covid-19 soon after giving birth, after reporting similar fears.

Her husband, Ernest Boateng is campaigning for all pregnant women who are more than 20 weeks gestation to be legally entitled to work from home, or suspended on full pay

Pregnant women remain in the clinically vulnerable category, which according to the most up to date government guidance, means they should strictly social distance.

During the summer, when the shielding restrictions were lifted, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) archived its Covid-19 occupational health guidance for pregnant women, leading to many NHS trusts relaxing their approach towards expecting healthcare workers – despite the risks being unchanged.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Doctor Meenal Viz, who is pregnant, protests about the lack of PPE and protection for NHS health workers. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The Doctors’ Association UK has heard from a number of worried pregnant NHS workers who have been on the frontline. 

“I don’t feel safe,” one surgical junior doctor from the South-East told us, speaking of her discomfort at being asked to continue working night shifts during her second trimester.

“I have been told that I should continue to work beyond 28 weeks in “green” areas (ie free of coronavirus), as there is no evidence of increased risk to pregnant women. However, we have had multiple patients admitted to our supposed “green” ward who have turned out to test positive for coronavirus.” 

Another trainee from London was also desperately worried. She was informed that all pregnant staff should continue to work on site, including on-calls, with the advice to call in the consultant if a high-risk patient presented.

“It is quite unnerving to hear so many doctors sent home from 28 weeks, when you have been told to continue as normal,” she said. “The differing advice being given across the country is a worry. I generally toe-the-line and feel very uncomfortable challenging managers. I assume that I will catch covid at some point and I just have to hope that it is not severe.” 

The pandemic has made us refocus on what is important and shown that it is possible to adapt our working practices to ensure staff can still be productive yet safe.

A medic based in Scotland told us of similar fears following outbreaks of coronavirus amongst her colleagues, who were sharing small office spaces and unable to adequately social distance.

“I became so anxious at work, that I eventually approached my supervisors to request I was no longer patient facing. Fortunately, they were sympathetic and arranged for me to do telephone clinics and admin, but I really don’t think I would have been able to avoid catching the virus without doing this.”

Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the States have provided further evidence that pregnant women may be at more risk of severe disease if they contract coronavirus, including an increased risk of preterm labour and stillbirth. Among the 703 cases described in the two reports, three of the women died, and between 16-30% required support on intensive care

As a pregnant doctor myself, I chose to avoid a return to face-to-face work when I found out I was pregnant earlier this year, and feel my family is safer for me doing so.

I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to work entirely from home, as the service I work for was set up for remote working even before the virus hit. I wrestle with feelings of guilt for not being “on the frontlines” alongside my colleagues, but have come to realise I am still doing my job and helping people every day. 

The Doctors’ Association UK advocate for medical professionals and are concerned that many pregnant healthcare workers are being exposed to covid-19 through their frontline work. We have a duty to protect these women and their unborn children and there is an urgent need for clear occupational health guidance from the government.

The pandemic has made us refocus on what is important and shown that it is possible to adapt our working practices to ensure staff can still be productive yet safe.

I feel strongly that my colleagues should be extended the same protection as myself.

Dr Ellen Welch is a GP and author based in Cumbria. She is also a GP advisor for the Doctors Association UK

Sign the petition asking the government to issue clearer guidance for pregnant healthcare workers hereThe following charities provide guidance for pregnant women specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic: Pregnant and Screwed, Maternity Action