Blog | Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ebola: The questions keep coming


The progression of the Ebola epidemic, particularly the recent episodes of transmission to health care workers who wore appropriate personal protective equipment, raises interesting questions. Certainly we need to continue to work on learning everything we can about the best approach to personal protective equipment and minimizing the risk of transmission during the process of care. But it’s also time to rethink some of the rituals surrounding care that have persisted in hospitals for decades.

Academic medical centers by their very nature increase the number of interactions with patients. Trainees at all levels need to interview and examine patients, and participate in their care to acquire necessary skills. While the benefits to the trainee are obvious, in some cases the patients benefit as well, via the therapeutic effects of another empathetic ear or the uncovering of a critical clue by the careful history of a novice interviewer. However, with a disease like Ebola, which can be transmitted in the health care setting, has no post-exposure prophylaxis, no effective treatment, and a high mortality rate, a strict approach to limiting the number of individuals in the physical proximity of the infected patient is appropriate as recommended by CDC.

Limiting contact typically means that in addition to students, other trainees such as residents and fellows also do not enter the room. But perhaps this needs to be taken a step further. Perhaps there should be one “examining” physician whose documented exam is used by consultants in their evaluations so as to limit room entry. In many cases, an additional exam probably doesn’t add much value, and is often performed because it’s expected or to maximize billing. Even before Ebola, as hospital epidemiologists we’ve asked ourselves the simple question: does every person on the care team need to examine every patient every day? Every encounter adds some level of risk for transmitting pathogens in the health care setting, but with Ebola the implications of transmission are taken to a whole new level. Fortunately, given technologies such as Skype, the ability to interview patients should not be impacted.

Ebola also pushes us to reconsider therapies that have a reasonably high probability of futility but increase risk to health care workers. In the case of the Dallas patient, who underwent endotracheal intubation and hemodialysis, we are left to question whether these procedures played some role in infection of the critical care nurse. Should CPR, which would seem to involve a very high degree of risk to bedside providers, not be performed? The ethical issues associated with withholding these procedures typically associated with “routine” critical care need to be explored since the risk-benefit calculus is markedly shifted by the level of risk to health care workers.

Lastly, should health care workers be compelled to work with Ebola infected patients? Do they have the right to opt out? Should those who volunteer receive hazard duty pay? Should there be a compensation fund for families in the event a health care worker contracts Ebola disease occupationally and dies? How do we handle the issue of pregnant health care workers? In the long run, how do we design the hospital of the future to maximize safety of the patient and provider?

These initial questions demonstrate that the Ebola crisis is challenging us in many ways and will likely continue to do so for quite some time. But perhaps we’ll emerge from this with a more thoughtful approach to patient care that improves safety without sacrificing quality.

Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is the Chief Quality Officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.