As a nurse, I’ve been closely following the coverage of this year’s flu epidemic, the rise in measles cases across the country and concerns over the return of other infectious diseases. It is helpful to start off this year by reflecting on some of the valuable professional lessons that we can take away from 2014.
In 2014 the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the concern that the disease could spread to the United States, forced us to take action and assess how ready we are to handle a potential infectious disease crisis. In Pennsylvania, we learned valuable lessons about our state and our nation’s readiness as we prepared to fight Ebola here:
1. Texas Health Presbyterian shocked us into action. The handling of the first Ebola patient at this hospital set off alarm bells across the country, especially for nurses on the frontlines of care. Based on various media reports, serious concerns were raised that clear protocols were not in place and workers did not have the proper equipment or training to handle this situation. We knew that we needed to be proactive and seek solutions at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) to prevent this from happening here.
2. Training of the full care team – from administrative staff to phlebotomists to nurses and doctors was essential to ensure we were ready to screen, identify and treat potential patients. At AGH, the hospital administration partnered with the staff team to develop a plan for who would be on the care team and what their roles and responsibilities would be.
3. We developed a site-specific plan — an absolute necessity in a public health emergency. Every hospital has different equipment, staffing levels and infrastructure; therefore every care team will need to make adjustments to follow protocols. Until we did the trainings live in our emergency and treatment rooms, we didn’t realize how much adaptation was necessary.
4. Our hospitals and public health system are in need of essential funding to advance our preparedness for future health challenges. We need dedicated funding for regular ongoing training to allow nurses and other healthcare workers the hours to be trained and to practice running simulations. Hospitals must assess their quarantine facilities, personal protective equipment and, should a crisis arise, their allocation of critical resources. The public health system requires resources to be able to quickly assess and communicate accurate timely information and provide guidance during a health crisis. We all have to be prepared for new infectious diseases like Ebola as well as the return of old diseases like whooping cough and tuberculosis.
5. Our fellow nurses and caregivers are incredibly dedicated and brave. When the call went out for volunteers to form the Ebola Response Team, our colleagues responded without hesitation. Even though we have not yet been faced with caring for a patient with Ebola at AGH, the courage our colleagues showed in stepping up was inspiring.
These are lessons Ebola brought to the forefront here in Pennsylvania, and lessons that we need to apply to our preparedness to answer other public health challenges. The practices nurses helped put in place to be ready to fight Ebola has increased our readiness to handle this year’s flu season and other infectious diseases as they arise. The good news — we know how to prevent the flu. Hospitals and nurses and healthcare workers can take these key steps now:
- Ensure the influenza vaccine is easily available and educate individuals that because of the vaccine’s limited effectiveness, additional prevention steps are important.
- Put in place public health outreach efforts and community briefings on the importance of flu prevention.
- Implement comprehensive infection control precautions, including frequent hand washing, use of personal protective equipment as needed, and environmental and engineering control measures.
- Make sure patients being treated for the flu understand cough etiquette to reduce the exposure of other patients, friends and family members, and healthcare workers.
- Support strong sick leave policies for all working women and men, but especially for healthcare workers so that they can stay home when they are ill.
In order to be ready for future infectious disease challenges, hospitals must devote time and invest in trainings for the entire hospital team. Now is the time to make a plan based on these lessons. Planning ahead, not scrambling in a time of crisis, is our best chance for preventing and dealing with any infectious disease.