Though the Ebola virus has infected only two people in the United States, a recent poll found that 40 percent of Americans see Ebola as a “major or moderate threat” to public health. With flu season just getting started, it is likely that your healthcare organization will see a surge of patients who believe they have Ebola as flu symptoms can be similar. Symptoms of the flu include fever, dry cough, extreme tiredness, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting.
Saju Mathew, a primary care physician, states that he has noticed an increase in patients coming in with flu symptoms believing that they have Ebola, “Some stories have been: I was in New York visiting last week, I know a physician there was diagnosed with Ebola, I’ve been on the subways. I’ve had a low grade fever. I’ve traveled. So really all the fears that should bring a patient in thinking they might have flu is now bringing the patient in thinking they have Ebola.”
Patients experiencing Ebola-like symptoms can divert time and resources in already overwhelmed emergency departments, which will only become more crowded as the flu season hits its peak. The fear of contracting Ebola may also cause patients with less severe symptoms who normally would have stayed home to seek medical care, dramatically increasing patient volume.
While in most cases, Ebola can be quickly ruled out, “there’s still some concern about anybody with symptoms that could be Ebola because it’s so much in the news right now,” according to Dr. Kristi Koenig, director of public health preparedness at the University of California in Irvine. Such concern can result in an over-extension of resources, including the redistribution of staff and the isolation of patients until Ebola can be ruled out.
While there is no way to accurately predict how many flu cases there will be, healthcare organizations can look to past flu seasons to help formulate a staffing plan. Locum tenens is an excellent option for healthcare organizations with seasonal staffing needs as it allows them to increase staffing levels without asking existing staff to pick up additional shifts. Many top healthcare organizations have established relationships with locum tenens companies so they can quickly bring on additional physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners when unforeseen staffing needs arise. Such preparation reduces patient wait times, alleviates overextending current staff, and reduces the risk of medical errors.