“Don’t come to the ER”

If you have the flu and you’re otherwise well, stay away from the ER. There’s not enough room for you.

North America is in the midst of the worst flu season in years and that’s the message we’re giving people.

Hospitals from coast to coast are seeing unprecedented cases of the flu, bed shortages and overcrowded emergency rooms. And yet what’s getting reported in the news across the continent is mostly unhelpful advice.

Read any North American news article and you’ll find that what gets written about are the urgent and interesting things about the flu. People who’ve decided that talking about overcrowding, numbers, and how many beds they’ve opened up is better than sharing important information that will help people stay healthy.

The virus isn’t the only problem

Contagiousness is one thing, but people who spread infections, and the environments in which they’re in are what tip epidemics and outbreaks. The most successful viruses spread because of certain kinds of people. In the case of the flu, people who most likely:

  • don’t wash their hands when they should
  • don’t stay home when they have the flu
  • don’t understand how the flu virus works
  • don’t know the signs and symptoms of the flu
  • don’t receive the flu vaccine
  • don’t care if they get other people sick
  • live or work in close contact with others

Despite working closely with people, I suspect fewer nurses and physicians get the flu than the general public. Not because we have super-human immune systems, but because we’re the kinds of people who have the knowledge and resources to avoid catching it.

The rest of the population at risk shouldn’t have to be at the mercy of what happens every winter. But they are.

Little changes can have dramatic effects

If PPE-donning nurses or physicians did home visits for people sick with flu symptoms, instead of seeing them in the ER. If schools and institutions got a little smarter about flu prevention.

If health care providers got a little better at persuading the general public to care more about preventing the flu. If people felt a little less guilty about staying home from work sick. If parents felt a little more strongly about keeping their children home longer when sick.

Then what would happen?

If only a small percentage of people of cause the majority of illness, the 80/20 rule would say that only a small group of people could cause the reverse.

The problem is, hospitals and most primary care settings are more interested in treating acute problems than preventing them in the first place.

Ask your non-nursing family and friends what they know about the flu. You’d be surprised what they don’t know, and what they don’t do to prevent it.

Telling people not to come to the ER if they’re sick with the flu isn’t the answer. Neither is telling the public to simply get the flu shot and wash their hands. Avoiding epidemics and outbreaks begins with identifying and influencing the kinds of people who start them and cause them to spread.

When you see preventable problems like the flu, look for the imbalance of power and knowledge, and the effort we make to maintain the status quo between us and the people we care for.