How to prepare for a major public health event: 5 tips from 4 Chicago hospitals

In 2014 and 2015, the Chicago Ebola Response Network, made up of four hospitals in the city, developed a roadmap for how regional public health networks can anticipate, manage and prevent major public health events, according to a paper published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The Ebola epidemic that ravaged several West African countries and made individuals around the world panic is known as a "black swan" event in the medical world because it is unpredictable and extremely impactful.

In response to the Ebola outbreak, four major Chicago academic medical centers — Rush University Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, University of Chicago Medical Center and Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago — collaborated to create a sustainable network called the Chicago Ebola Response Network in October 2014. CERN's purpose is to respond to complicated public health emergencies like Ebola, bioterrorism, natural disasters, other pandemics and emerging infections.

Here are just a few things CERN did that other regional public health networks should consider doing to prepare for black swan events.

1. Share resources between public and private partners to complement individual resources. Doing so may yield more efficient programs with municipal, state and federal public health leaders.

2. To make informed decisions quickly and easily, share expert information with one another or reach out to regional and national experts in biosafety, critical care, infectious diseases and infection control, bioterror preparedness and public health laboratory affairs.

3. Swiftly establish hospital standards regarding the personal protection equipment required to keep hospital staff safe, standard operating procedures for handling biohazard samples and detailed training requirements for hospital staff caring for patients.

4. Emphasize the benefits of cooperation while reducing the financial and public perception challenges associated with a single hospital being unfortunately stigmatized in relation to a black swan event. For instance, CERN members worked together to ensure no one hospital was stigmatized as the "Ebola hospital," which resulted in fewer cancellations of routine scheduled patient visits.

5. By using a network approach, hospitals will have access to a larger workforce and broader base of centers caring for potential cases. This allows for staff to rest and recover between cases and patients of the black swan event to receive care without disrupting the ongoing, critical care of existing patients at each hospital.

"The Ebola virus epidemic was a rare and unexpected event, but it is almost certainly true that another rare and unexpected event awaits, whether a new pandemic such as influenza, or a highly infectious respiratory virus such as measles," according to Omar Lateef, DO, CMO and associate professor at Rush UMC. "Creating networks that can enable a rapid response will be critical to protecting the public health in these situations."

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