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Reporting to Work During a Public Health Emergency

An article in the December 2011 issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness and shares the results of a survey sent to over 9,000 health care workers in King County.
Reporting to Work During a Public Health Emergency

Photo courtesy of FEMA

December 23, 2011

When a major earthquake strikes or an influenza pandemic becomes deadly, most people assume that health care workers will continue to report to work. But this may not be a correct assumption. During public health emergencies, health care workers are faced with complex professional and personal considerations. Some workers may find it impossible to report to work; others may be unwilling.

Not wanting to underestimate the complexity health care workers face in public health emergencies, researchers across the country have begun to study the factors that influence health care worker choice to report to work during an emergency. Public Health - Seattle & King County (PHSKC) recently contracted with NWCPHP to look at this in King County, Washington. This recently published study was conducted by NWCPHP faculty member Andy Stergachis, PhD and NWCPHP Associate Director, Luann D’Ambrosio, MEd in collaboration with PHSKC and the King County Health Care Coalition. The study was supported by a Healthcare Facilities Partnership Award to PHSKC from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The article is published in the December 2011 issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness and shares the results of a survey sent to over 9,000 health care workers in King County, with a 50 percent response rate. The goal of the survey was to assess the factors that may affect the ability and willingness of health care workers to report to work in two scenarios: an influenza pandemic and a severe earthquake. In either scenario, the respondents were told to assume that both they and their families were okay.

“We found that the ability and willingness to report to work were high for all respondents,” said Stergachis.

For the influenza pandemic scenario, 95 percent of respondents reported that they would be able and 89 percent reported that they would be willing to report to their usual place of work. Similar, but slightly lower numbers were reported for the severe earthquake scenario. Respondents also identified potential barriers to reporting to work. For the influenza scenario, 51 percent of respondents said that fear or concern for their family would be a barrier. More specifically, 57 percent of respondents with children 18 and under living at home reported that child care obligations could keep them from returning to work. In the earthquake scenario, transportation concerns were at the top of the list of potential barriers.

When asked what would help them report to work during an influenza pandemic, respondents indicated that anti-viral treatment for themselves and their families was crucial. The ability to work from home also ranked highly. In the aftermath of a severe earthquake, respondents indicated that assistance with transportation would influence their ability to return to work.

The study’s researchers point out that a limitation of the study is that in the event of a severe earthquake, for example, it is likely that health care workers may not know the status of family members immediately after the event occurs. The study authors also acknowledge that there are many factors that influence a person’s decision to return to work during an actual emergency. But a growing evidence base is shedding light on how organizations can begin planning now to help health care professionals report to work when a public health emergency arises.

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