Inoculate Yourself with Information

It all started with a conversation with my gynecologist....about Ebola. We talked late in 2014 in about how people we completely terrified about the Ebola outbreak and didn't seem to remember much about the basics of infectious disease. She said "Someone should write something about this for the general public." I agreed. Then I realized she meant me. 

So I wrote a story about this for the magazine I write for, The Health Journal, and then got an invitation to speak at The College of William and Mary about the topic. Unfortunately, we got snowed out that spring, and by the time I presented in the one seemed to care about Ebola. It didn't become an epidemic in the US.

But, luckily by that time, I was smart enough to add a virologist to my presentation, Dr. Kurt Williamson from William and Mary. He handled the virus and infection specifics, and I talked about how important it is to consume health information with a skeptical mind. It was a great chance to clarify some concepts for the general public, and for me, too! 


After giving a presentation this week on infectious diseases and deciphering health information, plus attending an excellent SHSMD session on the handling of the Ebola panic, I have a few thoughts. 

1. Even if all of us who work in the medical field think that people should know something, it's best to go back to the basics. Like the super-basic foundations of science -- for example, that a virus and a bacteria are different things but both can make us sick. Or, that one study does not science make!

2. Internal communication is ultra-important in a crisis. It's not enough to reassure the public. You must communicate to your staff, your board members, your volunteers and anyone working in your hospital. Because your credibility goes in the toilet when you say "We're prepared" but the reporter interviewing nurses on the loading dock hears "We've had no training on this."

3, Fear is a strong motivator, even if people know they shouldn't be afraid. They are, and they want to play it safe. I heard from someone who was thinking of firing her nanny because the nanny's mom was a nurse. It sounds like an overreaction now, but if you recall earlier this year, we were a nation on the edge of our seats as to whether we'd have an outbreak or not.

4. Communication takes time. It can be laborious when you want to be doing (let's go!!!) but it will save you time in the long run. Return people's calls (especially reporters!) even if you don't have anything new to share. Tell your employees what to expect. I agree with Doug Levy (formerly of Columbia University Health System) who said "Communication can't solve everything but it puts you in the best position to catch flaws in your plan." 

Infectious diseases are a tough topic, but one that we will continually revisit. They won't go away -- but we can educate and we can prepare. Oh, and we can communicate!