It was late last summer when LCMC Health Children’s Hospital of New Orleans began to see its first flu-infected patients in the current season. By mid-November, the hospital had treated 185 patients for flu in a single week compared with just two instances during the same time a year earlier.
“It was incredibly early for us to see flu cases,” said Dr. Leron Finger, chief quality officer at Children’s Hospital. “I think we recognized in the months of September and October that even though we only had sort of a trickle of cases, it was a leading indicator that it might be a far earlier flu season than we might have anticipated.”
Those indicators prompted meetings of the hospital’s surge capacity team, made up of leaders from the clinical and nonclinical departments typically most affected by a patient surge.
Alerts were sent to various departments, ranging from clinical care to environmental services to labs, explaining that they should expect greater demand for their services than they would normally receive.
The hospital’s early response adhered to LCMC’s process for addressing surge capacity issues, which Finger said relies on clinical and nonclinical personnel being trained to identify a potential emergency and respond accordingly. He said that has helped better prepare the hospital to manage room capacity issues, as well as burdens on supplies and staffing that an unexpected influx of patients can cause.
Yet, the current flu season has highlighted the unpredictable nature of managing patients, even with prudent planning. And the threat of a pandemic-like event has grown sharply with emergence of the 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
“We take the approach of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, physician adviser for the Center for Patient Flow and medical director for employee health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medicine.
“The reality is that new infectious diseases can emerge at any time and those diseases could have a significant impact,” she said. “Careful preparation combined with a timely and robust health sector response is our best chance to mitigate the threat of emerging diseases.”