The Invisible Threat: Planning for Infectious Outbreaks in Healthcare Facilities

By Ann Pickren

Keeping patients, staff, and visitors informed of day-to-day and critical events is challenging enough for healthcare organizations, and the recent spike in contagious outbreaks, such as measles, adds another layer of complexity when it comes to keeping people safe. 

The unpredictable nature of outbreaks demands a thoughtful approach to emergency management. How quickly an outbreak spreads and where it will hit are questions relevant to society as a whole — and healthcare facilities, in particular, where so many vulnerable patients reside. Timely and effective communication is essential to ensure that staff can act quickly, and there are key recommendations to consider when developing emergency communications plans based on required mandates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center of Disease Control (CDC). 

Infectious Disease Threats and Challenges

The measles outbreak over the past several months presents a multi-faceted threat to healthcare organizations. For one, complacency among the public was to be expected given that measles was declared eradicated in 2000. It can take time for citizens to get their heads around the fact that the U.S. is suddenly battling the highest measles outbreak in a quarter-century: as of May 17 of this year, the CDC confirmed 880 cases in 25 states.

The nature of measles presents another challenge to healthcare organizations. According to the CDC, measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases; 9 out of 10 persons with close contact to an infected individual will develop measles. This means that if anyone enters a facility for even a short time, further contagion is likely. And while there is a professional commitment to saving lives, healthcare workers are just as concerned as patients about how to protect their health. 

Strategies for Effective Emergency Preparedness

Many cases of infectious outbreaks at healthcare facilities reveal that communication is usually the number one failure during an emergency. Below are several WHO and CDC recommended proactive tactics when creating an emergency response plan:

Train Your Team

  • Identify frontline staff at every level of the organization before assessing protocol
  • Train the most essential staff first and request they cross train the remaining teams
  • Communicate the disease control policy and the list of responsibilities of all employees including corporate managers and HR

Proactive Communication

  • Register the organization for emergency mass notification systems (EMNS) and give health care administrators the ability to quickly send text, email, voice, RSS, and desktop notifications, to select groups within seconds
  • Be prepared to work with outside groups like the local health department who will enact crisis standards of care during emergencies to protect the public and healthcare personnel when resources are limited 
  • Communicate up-to-date travel warnings posted by CDC

Use EMNS with Right Capabilities 

The right preparation can be undone if a healthcare organization lacks the right tools for emergency communications. If you are using or considering an EMNS, ensure it has the following capabilities: 

Message Approval Workflow: It is critical to provide real-time information to stakeholders if inaccurate or unauthorized notifications are sent. By defining role-based and scenario-based permissions for message approvals, your organization is able to significantly reduce distribution mistakes or messages sent by an individual not authorized to do so.

Two-Way Communication: During an emergency, receiving information from staff and others is as critical as distributing alerts. Two-way communication is imperative when needing answers to questions like “are you observing new infections?” or “has a room or facility been fully evacuated?” Ensuring your EMNS has two-way messaging capability will reduce confusion and misdirected response efforts.

Automated Notifications:Removing as many manual steps and processes as possible will allow organizations to fully maximize the benefits of using EMNS by shortening the time between the occurrence of an event and the resolution of that incident. 

Geo-targeting: The ability to target groups of individuals, specific facilities and geographic areas is important so that your organization can target only those at risk, automatically plot contract addresses on a map, and allow administrators to choose specific areas they want to include or exclude from an alert.

Finally, educating people as soon as possible and addressing their concerns in advance will reduce fear and confusion during an actual disease outbreak. The measles outbreak has reaffirmed the challenge healthcare organizations face today in that organizations must determine only the most effective communication tactics when developing emergency response plans.

Ann Pickren is President of Onsolve

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