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Technology Can Zap Fear of the Unknown

 |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   May 26, 2015


Investing in technology and services is a crucial step for healthcare organizations that need to be ready for anything, including unfamiliar infectious diseases, says a CNO who speaks from experience.

Anthrax, SARS, Ebola. While they're frightening, and at times deadly, the likelihood of a patient presenting at a U.S healthcare facility with one of these diseases is low.

Yet, as we know from recent history, it's entirely possible.

"I don't think anyone can ever realize the kind of stress an organization is under when this type of event occurs," says Ronda McKay, DNP, RN, CNS, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care at Community Hospital in Munster, IN, a 427-bed not-for-profit facility.

McKay speaks from experience. It's been just over a year since Community earned the distinction of caring for the first person in the U.S with a confirmed case of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. There have been only two confirmed cases of MERS in the U.S. The other one was in Florida.

Despite the virus being novel to the U.S., Community thwarted any further transmission and prevented widespread panic by creatively using existing technology to gather data and then carefully communicating it to public health authorities, staff members, and the public.

'Life as You Know it Will Change'

"The impact of the disease is one thing," says John Olmstead, MBA, RN, CNOR, FACHE, director of surgical and emergency services at Community. "The impact to the community emotionally and, frankly, businesswise, is the what-ifs." In other words, fear of the unknown can often be more infectious and do greater, more lasting damage than the disease itself.

"We're very up on infectious disease processes, and we do a great job of identifying those patients that are at risk for, whatever it may be, from its inception," says McKay.

Because the patient presented with flu-like symptoms, he was quickly placed on isolation precautions as is standard protocol. But the situation grew more complicated. Based on the patient's history—he had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia—the EMR triggered an alert for further testing to rule out the MERS virus.  

"You go on along your happy day and all of a sudden you get a phone call that a patient is going to be tested for the MERS virus," McKay says. "And a lot of people in the organization were unsure of really what that was."

And for good reason. The virus has only been on the epidemiological scene since 2012 when it emerged in Saudi Arabia, and, according to the CDC, it's only been linked to countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula. In May 2014, the death rate for patients with the disease was 50%, though it has since dropped to about 30%, Olmstead says.

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

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