HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, February 11, 2008

Flu Pandemic Preparation for Hospitals

DailyKos has a great article by DemFromCt on the preparation or lack of preparation that hospitals have undertaken for the next flu pandemic - complete with lots of helpful charts and graphs.  The article is an eyeopening read on how much strain such emergencies would put on our health care system.  DemFromCt writes,

Problems like pandemics, surge capacity and disaster preparation do not go away by ignoring them. Hopefully, by putting some of these issues in perspective, we can better appreciate the time, dollars and energy spent on mitigating that which cannot be stopped. At the same time, we can appreciate the efforts being made by your public health people which, if invisible, are still none the less remarkable. And finally, we can appreciate how strained the current health system is... it would not take much these days to push things over the edge, despite the remarkable resilience the health system has shown.


The Washington Post had an interesting story last week about the challenges hospitals face in preparing for the next flu pandemic:

The federal government's voluminous plans for dealing with pandemic flu do not adequately account for the overwhelming strain an outbreak would place on hospitals and public health systems trying to cope with millions of seriously ill Americans, some public health experts and local health officials say.

The Bush administration's plans, which run more than 1,000 pages, contemplate the nightmare medical scenarios that many experts fear, but critics say federal officials have left too much of the responsibility and the cost of preparing to a health-care system that even in normal times is stretched to the breaking point and leaves millions of people without adequate access to care.

"The amount going into actually being prepared at a community level is not enough," said Patrick Libbey, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. "We are still talking about rearranging with little additional resources the assets of a system that are built on such a thin margin now that you have significant amounts of people without access to care, and hospitals that are periodically shutting down their ERs and the like."

These concerns aren't just reflected in news stories quoting public health officials. At a recent emergency management conference I attended, I heard the same concerns expressed by hospital representatives from all over the country. There's a reason for this... despite the great work by creative people trying to figure out how best to cope, there's just not enough of the three components that make up what's called surge capacity, the ability to flex up hospital care quickly to meet the needs of the population it serves (.pdf link). Those components can be thought of as "staff" (nurses and other health care workers and caregivers, "stuff" (from intravenous medicines to bedsheets to actual beds) and "space" (everything needs to be housed somewhere). California alone is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this (good that they are), and given the efforts on the one hand and the concerns on the other, it's worth spending a Sunday essay reviewing what the big deal is. It's your tax dollars, and (for one disaster or another), your community (click this link).

Dr Eric Toner (from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity) has been working on these issues for some years. Two of his slides illustrate the problem that an influenza pandemic would cause. In the first, the total US hospital beds availability is presented, and contrasted with what would be needed for both a mild moderate (similar to the 1968 pandemic) and a severe (based on 1918) pandemic. SNS is the strategic national stockpile, set aside for grave emergencies and under the control of HHS and DHS.

The second slide represents the same numbers looked at in terms of projected demand, and what would be required from hospitals to cope.

Using FluSurge 2.0 and inputting variables from the HHS planning assumptions results in projections that indicate that hospitals would be severely stressed in the best case scenario and completely overwhelmed in the case of a severe pandemic

What Hospitals Should Do to Prepare for an Influenza Pandemic
Eric Toner and Richard Waldhorn . . . . .

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