SBS language | ‘Please show up’: Bearded Sikh health workers called in for ‘career-saving’ clinical trial
Caught between their faith and the demands of their workplace, many Sikh healthcare workers and students in Victorian hospitals have been unable to continue their clinical practices or internships since the onset of the COVID pandemic. -19.
- Since the start of COVID-19, many Sikh medical professionals have expressed fear of ‘indirect discrimination’ in the face of changing mask rules
- NSW and WA have approved an alternative method allowing Sikh professionals to wear masks while keeping their beards intact
- In Victoria, the Royal Melbourne Hospital is conducting a clinical trial to find a safe solution, but the results would first need to be approved by WorkSafe Victoria
- Any bearded healthcare worker who cannot shave for religious, cultural or medical reasons can sign up for the trial
A bearded medical student who asked to be known only as Mr. Singh* faces a dilemma that threatens his very identity.
Like many other Sikh medical professionals and nursing students across Australia, she was told to “shave a close shave” to meet mask-fitting requirements.
“I was unfortunately banned from continuing my studies and there is currently no guarantee that there will be any changes next year or any time in the future,” he told SBS Punjabi.
Mr Singh says he filed a complaint with the Ombudsman only to receive a response that the problem lies with his institution and not the Ministry of Health.
“Under the current system, Sikh healthcare workers like me will not be able to work in a hospital setting if fit testing remains long-term without any accommodations,” Singh said.
There needs to be faster action from the Department of Health and WorkSafe. If other states can, why not Victoria?
NSW, WA and SA have all given the green light to the new Singh Thattha technique, which involves using an elastic band beard cover under the mask to put on respirator masks.
However, this technique is not currently approved by WorkSafe Victoria for use in passing fit test protocols.
Royal Melbourne Hospital trials are ongoing
Professionals, students and affected Sikh bodies have been advocating for a more unified solution across Australia for some time now.
Seeking a solution, the Royal Melbourne Hospital is conducting a 12-month trial into the effectiveness of the Singh Thattha Technique.
The results would need to be approved by WorkSafe Victoria before an alternative can be offered.
Charles Bodas of the hospital’s Respiratory Protection Program told SBS Punjabi that the trials are open to Victorian healthcare workers and students who cannot shave for religious, cultural or medical reasons and who need to an N95/P2 respirator for respiratory protection or source control.
“It’s not limited to doctors and nurses in hospitals,” says Bodas.
We want to include a wide range of healthcare workers, including allied health professionals such as physiotherapy, dentistry and podiatry.
According to Bodas, they intend to publish their initial assessments and repeat assessments at three and 12 months.
“There will be three participant assessments over the 12 month period of the trial. Each assessment covers three key elements: respiratory protection (quantitative fit test), user proficiency when donning and doffing of elastic and respirator; and usability of the technique by looking at things like ease of use, communication and thermal comfort,” he says.
“WorkSafe Victoria visited the Royal Melbourne Hospital and observed our fit tests using the elastic band beard cover on a respirator.”
“WorkSafe also reviewed documentation of our research protocol and our risk mitigation processes for those participating in our trial and deployed in the clinic,” he said.
“We have liaised with the Australian Association of Sikh Physicians, as well as other religious groups and healthcare organisations, and are open to help in promoting the study to relevant groups.”
‘Please come forward’
Bodas explains that so far the program has 21 participants, but ideally they want to at least double that number.
Medical student Mr Singh, who is participating in the clinical trial, says if the trial is successful it will create greater acceptance in the wider community and facilitate religious freedom.
“This may require all hospitals and placement sites to accept deceased persons using the Royal Melbourne Hospital findings if the trial is successful,” he says.
“I would ask any healthcare worker who has to keep their beard for cultural reasons to please get in touch and book in for a fit test. There have been very positive results so far.
“Beyond the impact on individuals like me, I fear that this issue will not only affect Sikh healthcare workers, but also significant numbers of Muslims and Jews,” he adds.
Mr. Singh says the long-term goal is to prove this method with evidence; however, the 12-month duration of the study means that many people in his position are unlikely to be able to continue their course or return to work until a much later date.
Hoping for a uniform policy across Australia
The Victorian Sikh Gurudwara Council (VSGC) raised concerns with Victorian Prime Minister Dan Andrews on April 16 during his visit to Keysborough Gurudwara.
Speaking to SBS Punjabi, VSGC Secretary Jang Pannu said, “We have tried to push the issue forward with the Prime Minister, raising the idea of allowing the use of the NSW technique in Victoria, as this was done in Western Australia. There is clear evidence behind it.
“The Prime Minister has forwarded our request to the Honorable Ros Spence [Minister for Multicultural Affairs]which the Ministry of Health then followed.
Mr. Pannu says they are strictly following this case and calling on people to come forward for the trials.
“Sikh medical professionals who cannot shave their beards cannot wear N95 masks which require a good seal around the nose and mouth,” he says.
“The purpose of fit testing is to verify which selected brands, models and sizes of fitted respiratory protective equipment, including N95 masks, properly fit the wearer.
“There is no doubt that fit testing is important in preventing hospital infections,” he says.
“But the diversity of health care workers is essential to providing equitable health care to people of all backgrounds, religions and cultures.”
In February, NSW Health approved a new way for Sikh healthcare workers to wear masks over their facial hair.
The North Shore Sikh Association (NSSA) has worked with the Clinical Excellence Commission (CEC), a government body, to develop a method of attaching a rubber band above a beard, where the mask seals tightly and does not slip not.
Ministerial approval follows months of independent testing and data collection.
“We hope that state governments will come up with a comprehensive policy that will cover all healthcare professionals with specific cultural and religious needs,” Pannu said.
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