The recent Ebola case at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, provides some important lessons for health care employers.  As of today, only 3 cases of Ebola have been diagnosed in the United States (which has a population of approximately 319 million), so there is no need for alarm at this time.  The experience in Dallas shows that preparation, education, and training can go a long way in helping a health care employer maintain readiness and a positive working relationship with its staff.

Last week, CNN reported that the nurses’ union at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital raised concerns about an alleged lack of safety protocols for the Hospital’s Ebola response.  Specifically, the nurses’ union complained that:  (i) the Ebola patient was not immediately isolated; (ii) nurses were not provided with appropriate protective gear; (iii) nurses did not have proper supplies to dispose of hazardous waste; and (iv) nurses were not required to attend training about Ebola.

Regardless of whether these claims are true, they identify a potentially significant problem for health care employers – failure to maintain a good working relationship with the medical and nursing staff on the frontlines of an Ebola response can significantly impair a health care providers’ ability to respond effectively.  In a worst case scenario, a walk-off or strike could jeopardize a health care provider’s ability to operate or negatively impact public safety.

So what can a health care employer do now to avoid such a scenario?  While the answer to that question will vary depending on the nature of the clinic or hospital and its risk profile, here are some initial thoughts:

  • Designate an Ebola Leadership Team: Health care employers can designate a leader or leadership team to develop an emergency response plan, direct any necessary response for Ebola, ensure adequate preparation and supplies, and to answer any questions from employees.  The individuals designated should be responsible for staying up-to-date with respect to reported Ebola cases as well as the latest guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other health organizations.
  • Ensure Adequate Supplies: Health care employers should make sure that they have adequate protective gear on hand in case a patient is diagnosed with Ebola, including personal protective equipment and supplies for disinfecting and disposing of hazardous waste.  It is important that employees know how to access these supplies if needed or how to request additional supplies.
  • Provide Training and Education: Health care employers should consider providing education and training to employees about how to recognize Ebola symptoms, how to respond to suspected cases (including where and when patients should be isolated), how to properly don and doff any required protective gear, how to interact with patients, or how to dispose of hazardous waste.  Because hands-on education is usually most effective, it may be helpful to run simulations so that employees can get first-hand experience and build their confidence.
  • Maintain Good Communication With Employees Or Union Representatives: Health care employers should maintain open lines of communications with employees or their union representatives to make sure that employee concerns are addressed.  For example, employers could establish a system for employees or union representatives to ask questions, make suggestions, report concerns, or identify additional training or guidance that would be helpful.  Alternatively, employers could establish an intranet site or another system to provide employees with up-to-date information about Ebola and the employer’s procedures.

Some resources for health care employers to learn about Ebola and how to respond suspected cases include the following:

Takeaway:  The current Ebola situation in the United States remains limited in scope and should not be a significant concern for the vast majority of employers.  For health care employers, however, investing in preparation, education, and training could be useful to help prepare the employer’s workforce to respond to an Ebola patient, if necessary, and to maintain a good working relationship with employees.  For more general information about Ebola and its employment implications, click here.