When a pandemic tests us in healthcare
Wednesday, February 05, 2020
Pandemics regularly challenge the global healthcare system. SARS certainly taught us some lessons, as did the H1N1 outbreak when those born after the 1970s had insufficient previous exposure to similar viruses, thus the resultant lack of relative immunity caused the young to be hit harder. Enter, stage left, the 2019-20 coronavirus.
As this current viral threat circulates around the world — mostly via those who have recently been to the Wuhan area of China — the World Health Organization (WHO) is grappling with public relations, epidemiology, containment and quarantines, travel restrictions (and some outright bans), as well as deciding whether this is truly a pandemic or not. Some might see that debate as simply a matter of semantics, while those in the know contend that declaring an epidemic, pandemic, or a global health emergency is more than just words and must involve a highly nuanced decision-making process.
The CDC, WHO, and their counterparts and partners worldwide are now officially in Coronavirus Overdrive, and where this goes and where it stops is anyone’s guess, although many are bracing and preparing for a long-haul effort that will pay myriad dividends when we eventually take a clear-eyed look over our shoulder.
For healthcare workers on the front lines, information is key. As worldwide efforts surrounding the coronavirus widen and deepen, those in direct contact with patients need clear data in order to make sound clinical decisions. While some ambiguity is part and parcel of such a potentially dire situation, as much clarity as we can muster is definitely in our best interest.
Healthcare facilities and governmental agencies obviously need to gear up for what could be a protracted battle involving a high level of vigilance paired with the potential for little clinical contact with actual sick patients in certain locations. That said, preparations must be made as we never know when and where another case could emerge, and it’s abundantly clear that a “not-in-our-town” mentality with head conveniently buried in the sand does little for advancing, or contributing to, the cause.
From Anchorage to Zimbabwe, we simply have to be ready. Having said that, the fragile healthcare infrastructure in some countries may cause understandable doubt and concern regarding the overarching goal of containment, not to mention certain authoritarian governments’ initial attempts to obfuscate the truth by willfully ignoring actual science and long-established global public health protocols.
Knuckling down into the situation at hand, we need government officials, the global public health infrastructure, boots-on-the-ground clinicians, healthcare administrators, and other key players to work in concert in order to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information to all concerned (including the media and the public, of course).
We are currently in the process of creating a web of data, recommendations, and cautions that will sway ordinary people away from panic and galvanize those with a stake in the battle to hold nothing back as they dedicate themselves to combatting this threat, one that could become much larger in scope despite our wishes that it peter out with a whimper.
By “knuckling down” we allude to focused effort, education, coordination, and preparation. There are many parts to play, from planning mass casualty and vaccination drills to gaining control of the global narrative. We must push back against misguided false cures and preventive measures by using facts as our weapon of choice. This is our overarching imperative.
History Will Tell the Story
As with SARS, H1N1, and other epidemics or pandemics throughout the years, history will ultimately be the judge of the relative success of our individual and collective response.
If the virus is contained, we don’t want the public to simply see the healthcare system as overreactive, but it could be the very intensity of our reaction and response that actually brings containment about. Gaining and holding the public trust is crucial, and the WHO has been out front in that regard since the beginning of this current state of affairs.
Administrators, executives, medical directors, and others in positions of influence and authority can end up on the right side of public health history by following guidelines, avoiding hysteria, and leveraging evidence-based data to their advantage.
We have no idea how this current threat to global health will eventually be resolved, but we do know unequivocally that coordinated efforts and global cooperation will necessarily be the cornerstones of our efforts and our strong hope for eventual success.
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