Flu Vaccines for Healthcare Providers the Right Thing to Do

January 17, 2014

Despite the controversy, it is important for all healthcare providers to get their own flu shot to control the epidemic and aid patients.

It is hard to believe that flu activity is actually increasing right now. Our community hospital was especially hard hit this week, with every ICU bed occupied, and 35 to45 people holding in the ED at any given time awaiting admission, many of them on ventilators.

I don’t think that I have ever seen a harsher flu season in my career, and it is threatening to overwhelm hospitals everywhere.

Influenza is one of those public health emergencies that we can anticipate like clockwork every year, and I’m wondering if we as healthcare providers are doing as much as we can to make sure that the vulnerable are protected.

The costs associated with the annual influenza epidemic are astronomical. The annual cost is calculated to be more than $85 billion dollars in direct and indirect costs. I have to believe as a healthcare provider that we can cut these costs by doing a much better job of educating the public and deploying flu vaccine in a widespread manner.

I started my career in public health as a physician assistant (PA) in 1982, and got a first hand education in the importance, and cost-effectiveness, of prevention. Preventing influenza epidemics, and their associated morbidity and mortality, is no easy task.

The Centers for Disease Control continually monitors influenza virus in the community, to predict which viruses will likely be the culprits for the upcoming flu season. Vaccines are developed and mass produced based on these predictions, and deployed in the community in advance of the flu season.

This system relies on physicians, PAs, NPs, nurses, and others to participate in educating the public and deploying to vaccine to the populations who need it the most. This starts with healthcare providers being first in line to get the vaccine.

Those of us who work in acute care facilities have a responsibility to protect our patients from all the various viruses and bacterium that can cause disease. Influenza vaccine is high on the list of deadly agents that can cause death and disability in the very young and old.

There is at times a lot of controversy regarding immunization of healthcare workers, but it just makes sense for those of us on the front lines of caring for patients to not be a part of the problem. You are at risk of getting the flu from your patients, and then increase their risks as you are potentially spreading the virus. The vaccine doesn’t prevent the spread of all know flu viruses, but it will prevent the spread of the more virulent strains predicted by the CDC to cause disease during flu season.

The risk factors are well known for patients and providers alike, and focus on the very old, the very young, and pregnant women. It is interesting to note that 50 percent of the admissions for flu symptoms this season have been among the obese. It is important to screen the patients under your care for flu risk.

Physicians, PAs and all healthcare providers are at the forefront of dealing with the annual flu epidemics in the U.S., and we should all take a leadership role in minimizing the effect of flu epidemics in this country.

• First and foremost, know your patient population, and identify patients at risk for the flu and get them vaccinated each and every flu season. It could be the difference between life and death.

• Lead by example. Get vaccinated early in the flu season, and encourage your colleagues and co-workers to get vaccinated.

• If you are sick with the flu, to the best of your ability, keep yourself isolated, or at least protect others by wearing a mask and washing your hands regularly.

The third one is a tough one, because the last thing needed right now is depletion in the human resources needed to treat patients in a flu epidemic. We all tend to work when we are ill, but we need to think about ways in which to minimize our own negative effects on the public health of our communities, while doing our jobs and serving the patients who rely upon us for their care.

Influenza is a costly, preventable problem in our communities. Let’s all do our part to minimize its impact.

This blog was provided in partnership with the American Academy of Physician Assistants.