You might think that doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff would be among the first to get vaccinated against the flu. But too many don’t, even though hospitals can be breeding grounds for the virus and patients there are especially vulnerable to it, according to a report released today by the nonprofit National Business Group on Health. To counter that problem, a coalition of groups led by the NBGH, including the American Hospital Association and supported by Consumers Union, have started an initiative to increase flu-vaccination rates among hospital staff.
Getting the flu shot is important for everyone, since the disease leads to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations each year and, in some years, tens of thousands of deaths. But it’s especially important for hospital workers, for several reasons.
First, health-care workers are more likely to be exposed to the flu, since many patients bring the virus with them to the hospital or doctor’s office. And if health-care workers do get infected, they’re likely to pass the disease along to their patients, many of whom are especially susceptible to it and its complications. Finally, if doctors or nurses get sick with the flu, they might not be able to provide needed care to their patients, which could be a particular problem during a flu outbreak.
To prevent those problems, expert guidelines from the American Hospital Association and several medical societies have said that all health-care workers should either be vaccinated or take other steps to prevent the spread of infection by, for example, wearing a mask during flu season. And starting next year, new rules will require that all hospitals tell the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention what percentage of their health-care workers have been vaccinated against the flu.
Research suggests that such steps can help prevent the spread of the flu, and save lives. One study concluded that vaccinating the entire staff would prevent about 60 percent of all flu infections among patients. And two randomized trials found that vaccinating health-care workers cut the mortality rate in nursing homes by 44 percent.
But other research, including some conducted by Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project, suggests that many health-care providers still don’t get vaccinated. A 2010 study by the group, which aims to prevent harm in hospitals, found that two of three reporting California hospitals failed to meet the target of having at least 60 percent of its staff vaccinated against the flu. And many failed to report despite a California law requiring them to do so. Updated results for 2010 and 2011 show that while more California hospitals are reporting, there’s been little improvement in vaccination rates.
Some health-care workers have complained that mandatory vaccination undermines their privacy and individual rights. But patients expect health-care workers to take reasonable steps to protect them from disease, and the flu vaccine seems a very low risk preventive step to take.
As a recent letter in the British Medical Journal says:
Doctors and other health-care providers have an ethical obligation to make decisions and take actions that protect patients from preventable harm. Many patients are highly vulnerable to flu, so choosing not to be vaccinated is choosing to do harm—a choice that has no place in health care.
Infections naturally find the most effective way to survive and spread. In the case of flu, our health-care system has made that too easy.
Hospitals Should Require Flu Vaccination for all Personnel to Protect Patients’ Health and Their Own Health [National Business Group on Health]
Spreading Germs: Low Rates of Flu Vaccination Among California Healthcare Workers Put Patients at Risk [Consumers Union]
—John Santa M.D.