Strategies hospitals can use to brace for a flu pandemic

Hospitals can take steps to be better prepared for potential influenza pandemic.

Public health officials have warned that an influenza pandemic could be on the horizon and providers may not be ready to handle the challenges that come with a wide-scale disease outbreak.

But hospitals are taking steps to prepare for an outbreak in the wake of worries over proposed budget cuts from the Trump administration that would slash funding to the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health.

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Hospitals and health systems are including a potential flu outbreak in their emergency preparedness plans and testing strategies to limit the spread of disease, according to an article from Healthcare Dive. For example, in California, Stanford Health Care’s 20-person committee has devised a plan to provide a drive-through emergency department to avoid bringing ill patients into the hospital before they’re screened.

The system tested the program in the wake of 2009’s H1N1 flu outbreak. Patients who potentially have the flu will be screened in or near their cars, isolating them from either bringing the virus into the hospital or coming in contact with others who may have it. It also protects nonclinical staff from potential exposure, according to the article.

Other providers have tested teletriage programs that would prevent potentially ill patients from coming to the emergency department and allow for faster screening, according to the article. The Minnesota Department of Heath’s MN FluLine, for instance, has prevented about 11,000 face-to-face flu visits. Banner Health hospitals plan to keep a stockpile of disposable masks, gloves and gowns on hand in case a large outbreak occurs. 

In addition to ways hospitals can prepare internally, infection control should also begin long before a patient is sick enough to seek out care, public health experts note. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines (PDF) to prevent a flu pandemic, with a focus on nonpharmaceutical strategies that can reduce the spread of disease. These strategies fit into three categories: personal protective measures, community measures and environmental measures.

Personal options include sick patients voluntarily isolating themselves at home or practicing better hand hygiene, and community measures can include closing schools or offices to prevent the spread of disease. Environmental measures push for better cleaning of surfaces that can harbor disease.