UTHealth Researchers to Assess Asthma Risk in Healthcare Workers

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health have been awarded a four-year, $1.3 million grant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study how the risk of asthma has changed for healthcare workers in Texas over the last 10 years.

Asthma prevalence is growing across the United States and certain occupational groups are more affected than others, including those in the healthcare field.

In 2003, the researchers published the results of a survey that found an increased prevalence of asthma among healthcare workers, especially nurses. After entering the healthcare field, 7.3 percent of nurses developed asthma while this figure was between 4.2 to 5.6 percent for doctors, respiratory therapists and occupational therapists.

Since nurses handle cleaning products on a regular basis, researchers studied the types of products used for medical instrument cleaning and general surface cleaning. They determined that use of liquid medical disinfectants, such as glutaraldehyde, significantly increased asthma risk in these healthcare professionals.

Powdered latex gloves and the administration of aerosolized medications were also shown to increase risk of asthma. The risk associated with powdered latex gloves disappeared in the 2000s after healthcare facilities started using products with fewer respiratory effects.

“Practices in hospitals have changed in 10 years. There are new cleaning chemicals, including many environmentally friendly ones, but are those products without risk? We want to find out,” says George Delclos, MD, PhD, co-principal investigators and professor in the Division of Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences at the UTHealth School of Public Health.

In the new study, researchers will repeat the same survey with a larger sample size of healthcare workers in Texas to assess whether the risk has changed. The follow-up study will also focus on different nursing professionals, such as vocational nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners.

In the first phase of the study, they will document any new exposures and practices in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings that may adversely affect respiratory systems. The second phase will involve a large statewide survey or several thousand medical professionals randomly selected from databases at Texas licensing boards.

“It’s likely that changes in healthcare setting practices, coupled with increased awareness of asthma in health care workers, has had an effect on the burden of asthma in this worker population,” says David Gimeno, PhD, co-principal investigator and associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at the UTHealth School of Public Health San Antonio Regional Campus.

Delclos and Gimeno will also study how the burden of asthma relates to health-related absences from work. “It’s possible that there are socioeconomic consequences from the high rates of asthma in healthcare workers,” says Delclos.

The funding for this project, titled “Asthma in Texas Healthcare Workers II” comes from the CDC and the NIOSH (1R01OH010648-01).

Source: University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston  

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