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Had Your Shots?

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Convincing healthcare workers to get their flu shots can be a challenge for providers, but a new infection control standard approved in June by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations aims to curb the spread of influenza from healthcare workers to patients.

The standard, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2007, requires healthcare organizations to offer vaccinations to hospital employees, licensed independent practitioners and volunteers. It also encourages hospitals to provide on-site vaccinations, as well as educational resources that heighten awareness about influenza.

Linda L. Spaulding, R.N., chief executive officer of Lakewood Ranch, Fla.-based infection control consulting firm InCo and Associates, contends that the current healthcare worker vaccination rate of about 40 percent, as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is much too low. Prior to the new JCAHO recommendations, healthcare employers were not required to offer vaccinations or implement a program to encourage vaccinations. “Time will tell if this current push will affect these rates,” says Spaulding. “I don’t think it will immediately.” The Joint Commission stopped short of actually mandating vaccinations, so workers are still allowed to refuse their flu shots.

“Direct healthcare providers historically have been very poor recipients of influenza vaccine,” says Sue Slavish, R.N., an infection prevention and control coordinator at the 447-staffed-bed Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu. Vaccination rates are especially low among nursing staff at hospitals across the country, according to Slavish, who says the recurring trend is somewhat puling. “Our non-clinical staff members are very consistent in their willingness to take the vaccine—it’s the nursing staff that we have the biggest problem with,” she says.

Rather than wait for flu shots to be mandated, Slavish encourages hospitals to be proactive. “It’s time for healthcare providers—particularly direct caregivers—to step up to the plate and take responsibility before it becomes a law, because nobody’s ever happy with that,” she says. In an effort to boost its vaccination rates, Queen’s Medical Center offers flu shots to staff on-site and at no cost, Slavish says. The hospital also vaccinates willing volunteers.

Flu shots may do more than just protect patients from infection. Worker vaccination programs can potentially boost an organization’s bottom line, Spaulding says, because better vaccination rates should result in fewer flu-related employee absences.

—Matt Rogers