What Should Hospitals Do to Prepare for Pandemics?

During a pandemic, hospitals are ground zero. Healthcare workers suddenly face an influx of patients, leading to strained resources and heavier workloads. Fortunately, hospital administrators can take steps to prepare for these situations and prevent the resulting challenges from overwhelming workers.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the George Washington University School of Business.

The Cost of Pandemics and Epidemics Throughout History

Pandemics serve as tough lessons in emergency preparedness for public health officials and hospital administrators. Past pandemics, such as SARS in 2003 and the Spanish flu in 1918, claimed the lives of millions and tested the ability of hospitals, healthcare workers and nations to protect and care for individuals.

Infectious Diseases That Rocked the Globe

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 resulted in 675,000 deaths in the U.S. and 50 million deaths worldwide. The Asian Flu pandemic of 1957 resulted in an estimated 116,000 deaths in the U.S. and 1.1 million deaths around the globe. The Flu – H3N2 pandemic of 1968 resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths in the U.S. and 1 million deaths worldwide. The SARS pandemic of 2003 resulted in 774 deaths out of 8.098 cases before being stopped in 2004. This contrasts with 2009’s Swine Flu pandemic, which resulted in an estimated 12,469 deaths. The H1N1 virus still circulates during flu season. The most recent infectious disease, COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pandemic Intervals Framework

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) splits their pandemic response into six phases. It begins with an investigation, as public health officials monitor the infectious disease and assess the likelihood of a pandemic occurring. Next is the recognition interval, where officials focus on treating patients and containing the spread. If the virus continues to easily spread – a step the CDC refers to as initiation – the public health organization moves to the acceleration phase, where the virus’ speed continues and officials recommend community interventions, like physical distancing and school closures. The next phase, deceleration, occurs when the number of new cases decrease, and officials reduce community interventions. The final step is preparation, where officials monitor viral activity and watch for secondary waves.

Recognizing and Preparing for Challenges During a Pandemic

Infectious diseases test healthcare workers’ ability to adapt to emergency situations. Healthcare administrators should be aware of common pitfalls and take steps to prepare for a pandemic.

Common Challenges

One of the typical challenges faced concerns underprepared hospitals inadvertently amplifying the pandemic by increasing the viral spread to patients, visitors and staff. Another challenge faced is the increased demand for healthcare, as key care resources like hospital space and medicine may be strained. There is also the challenge of overwhelming complexity concerning the situation, which not only stems from efficiently adapting functionality but also involves forging and strengthening partnerships with health sector and local community entities within a limited window. Finally, hospitals may struggle to integrate hospital operations into the country’s overall pandemic response.

How Hospitals Should Prepare for a Pandemic

One of the key preparatory tactics that hospitals can utilize is to review and revise their infection prevention and control protocols. They can also implement appropriate measures during normal, routine circumstances to strengthen their ability to adapt during an outbreak. Thirdly, they can assess community vulnerabilities, risks from the interaction of possible hazards, and health system strengths and weaknesses. In addition, hospitals can conduct emergency response training. They can also create a plan for responding to early warnings of an outbreak, and they can test a drive-through model for patient screening to limit potential exposure.

Staff training and education is also a critical tactic for hospitals to deploy. They can train their staff to perform activities beyond their daily roles and responsibilities. They can also train and educate their staff about pandemic-related elements such as infection control precautions, proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand hygiene.

How to Support Healthcare Workers on the Front Lines

Because healthcare workers are part of the first response to an infectious disease, it’s important for hospital administrators to prioritize their health and well-being.

7 Tips for Supporting Healthcare Workers’ Well-Being

One of the important strategies healthcare administrators can use is to build a resilient organization through strategies like appointing a chief wellness officer (CWO) or establishing a plan to suspend or reduce nonessential tasks. Another tactic that can be used is to conduct surveys to assess stress levels, identify specific drivers and develop supportive infrastructure. Administrators can also redistribute the workload by enabling staff to increase access to remote care and extend medical assistants’ and nurses’ responsibilities with physician discretion. In addition, administrators can retrain and/or enhance employee skills to prep them for ICU work and to increase the workforce. Also, administrators can set up a triage hotline that allows medical students to support a call center. In additions, administrators can provide staff with easy access to emotional support by assigning therapists to strategic locations throughout the hospital, such as the cafeteria or staff lounges. Finally, administrators can establish a wellness committee to ensure basic well-being needs are being met.

Taking the Proactive Approach

By taking steps to prepare for a pandemic, hospital administrators will be able to effectively respond to a disease outbreak and adequately care for their staff members, ultimately benefiting both patients and hospitals.