In the Event of an Outbreak

What providers can do to prepare for an infectious disease outbreak, and how sales reps can help

By Alan Cherry

The Ebola outbreak in Africa continues to be a cause of concern for the world’s healthcare industries and organizations. As with any threat that has the potential to become a global health crisis, knowledge, preparation, and vigilance are of the upmost importance.

During a recent webinar hosted by the Association of National Account Executives (ANAE), the CDC’s Dr. James Lange, PhD, CIP, and two representatives from Baylor Scott & White Health discussed the current Ebola outbreak. They provided some background on the Ebola virus and spoke about the ongoing efforts by both the CDC and provider organizations to contain and diffuse the situation. They also pointed to some areas that those in the industry-at-large can do to assist hospital and IDN’s preparation efforts.

Outbreak overview
Ebola hemorrhagic fever and its sister, the Marburg virus, are both classified as Bio-safety Level 4 viruses. The 2014 Ebola outbreak was first reported in Guinea’s four southeastern districts earlier this spring, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Soon after it was reported in Guinea, the suspected cases were reported (and later confirmed) in the neighboring countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“The 2014 Ebola outbreak is one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history and the first in West Africa. It is affecting four countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, but does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. public,” according to the CDC website.

Dr. Lange further specified that the reason the various healthcare agencies concluded an outbreak in the United States was not imminent was due to the difficulty with which the virus is transmitted from person to person. In order to contract the virus, a person’s bodily fluids must come into direct contact with those of an infected person, a situation that is less likely in the U.S. and other developed countries due to the quality of care facilities and availability of resources and personnel.

Provider preparedness

Walter Cassity, VP of environmental safety, and Bill Sutker, MD, infectious disease physician, both from Baylor Scott & White Health, spoke about Baylor Scott & White and other providers do to plan for, and combat, threats like the Ebola virus.

“We take an all-hazards approach to our disaster planning and emergency preparedness program. So, basically we look at anything that could cause a disruption in our ability to provide patient care – be it an outbreak, a supply chain disruption, EHR downtime – we include in our planning purposes,” says Cassity. Baylor Scott & White’s “all-hazards approach” comprises four phases: Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, says Cassity. “We try and have all the hazards [including Ebola] under one approach so we don’t have anything on the outlying fringes of what we’re trying to prepare for.”

Cassity says that it is key to communicate to hospital staff that, in the event of a health crisis, they would perform a very different role from what is being shown on TV. “We’ve already begun to put together information to get out to our staff because there’s always some concern when something new comes into the facility. In the case of Ebola… everyone’s watching CNN and seeing folks in Class A suites and Class B suites with air tanks and respirators on. And our stage in the hospital isn’t quite that,” he says.

In the event of an outbreak, the role of hospital staff would be to provide care, according to Cassity, whereas the people shown wearing the biohazard suites on TV are doing decontamination and other functions that require a much higher level of personal protective equipment.

“That type of information is what is key to get out in a proactive manner so that we don’t have panic and we don’t have over-concern within our facilities,” said Cassity.

Dr. Sutker concurs. “I think the most important part [of preparedness] is communication and education. We have to educate our physicians, we have to educate our staff and decrease the ‘fear-factor’ and give them the practical points … We have put a lot of things in place.”

Sutker says that a major contributor to the calmness among provider organizations is that they already have plans in place to contend with potential global health crises. “We are using our experience with the other illnesses [H1N1, MRSA, Avian Flu, etc.] and trying to just expand on that as new information becomes available from the CDC.”

Keeping the supply channel open
Cassity says that one of the challenges providers face is finding the balance between not having a wasteful stockpile of protective equipment on-hand, while making they can still get the needed supplies delivered in a timely fashion during this type of event. Sutker reiterated that it is important to ensure that everyone in the industry remain up-to-date on the information and the resources that can be shared, if necessary. “I really think it’s an all-out community effort to make sure that we are providing all the information we need to the public,” says Sutker.

Taking the lead

Sutker explains that the leadership at the nation’s hospitals and systems need be aware of the basic facts and the availability of resources. He says it is crucial to have leadership actively involved in prevention efforts and willing to expend resources and time to mobilize and engage each of the various components – clinicians, human resources, the communication department, etc.

Cassity says that currently, Baylor Scott & White is going system-wide with the “Mitigation” strategy its leaders devised. “We’re communicating to our employees and to our physicians. We won’t really communicate to the patients until we have cases like [Ebola in Texas]… There’s a very fine line between under-communicating to your patents and over-communicating, but it is important to keep them in that loop,” says Cassity.

Both Sutker and Cassity heavily advocate staying abreast of current CDC recommendations and guidance and strictly adhering to CDC procedures. “The mitigation and preparedness, although that’s not what everyone sees – is where we need to really put the primary goal,” says Cassity.

Dr. Lange agrees. “What we have to do is to tell folks, ‘We understand your level of concern and even your level of panic,’ and try to get across to them that we do have the resources, knowledge, and capability to deal with emergencies such as this one,” Lange says. “We know how to stop this epidemic, but we have to apply the proper amounts of resources in the epidemic zone to get that done. We’re going to get it stopped.”