For Immediate Release
September 1, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Ask Your Doctors and Nurses to Get the Flu Vaccine This Year

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

Every doctor, nurse and other health care professional knows that the first rule of medical care is “to do no harm.”

The ethical obligation to safeguard patients from unintended illness or injury is imbedded in the Hippocratic Oath, the moral compass that has guided the practice of healing arts for more than 2,000 years.

That’s why it is so puzzling that about half of all health care professionals today don’t bother to protect themselves and their patients against influenza by getting the annual flu vaccine.

Even during last year’s flu pandemic – the global outbreak that caused more than 12,000 deaths in the United States – only 37 percent of US health care professionals said they got the additional H1N1 flu vaccine, according to a new report.

What’s going on here?

Virtually none of these highly trained professionals would think of approaching a patient with unwashed hands that could transmit infectious agents. None would blithely permit their patients to be exposed involuntarily to tobacco smoke or other toxins that could lead to cancer or heart disease.

Yet after 30 years of irrefutable evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective in protecting patients, tens of thousands of health care professionals decline to receive them each year. Despite intensive education campaigns every year to get health care staff immunized in most hospitals and large clinics, such voluntary efforts rarely achieve more than 70 percent coverage.

Studies have shown that health care professionals turn down flu vaccines for the same reasons that other people do. They have doubts about their risk of getting infected, or their need for the vaccine. Some question how well it really works, or express concerns about side effects.

Some just don’t like getting injections.

Frankly, this is appalling. Health care providers should know better than this by now. And they should set a better example for their patients and their communities in the coming flu season by getting themselves in line for the new flu vaccine as it comes on the market in Kansas in the next few weeks.

It has been well established that flu vaccination of health care professionals lowers patient risk and saves lives. When health care staff members are immunized against influenza, they are much less likely to transmit the flu virus to their elderly and other high-risk patients, some of whom may otherwise die from the disease.

There is also strong evidence that an immunized health care workforce has less absenteeism during the annual winter peak in community flu cases. This allows hospitals and clinics to keep more qualified staff on duty when the demand for care is highest, and to keep down the cost of care.

So we all benefit when doctors, nurses and other members of the clinical team do the right thing and get themselves immunized against the flu.

That’s why it may be time for patients and other concerned Kansans to give the health care professionals in our lives a good-natured reminder about the importance of getting the flu vaccine this year. A gentle word coming from you may be just what some hesitant doctors and nurses need to roll up their sleeves and get the vaccine.

This year’s vaccine – which will cover both the H1N1 strain and the common seasonal strains – promises to be available in abundant supplies. And, according to new national guidelines, virtually everyone over six months of age is recommended to get the vaccine.

There is simply no good excuse for a doctor, nurse or other health care professional not to be immunized against the flu this year. This is a critical patient safety issue, a matter that goes to the heart of every health care professional’s obligation “to do no harm.”

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Go to his blog at: www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.