Doctors need flu shots, too. And don't forget your staff

Experts are predicting an adequate supply of vaccine this season and encouraging physicians to be among the first in line.

Posted Oct. 24, 2005.

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Each year an estimated 36,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospitalizations result from common influenza.

These stark figures lead health officials to reiterate other truths -- most notably, that the flu vaccine ultimately saves lives and hospitalizations. It also reduces the disease's ability to undermine work productivity and cause other inconveniences.

But unless people get the shot, it can do no good. And physicians continue to be among those who don't always internalize this message.

Overall, physicians and other health care workers have a lower-than-expected vaccination rate -- less than 40% actually receive it. This even though those who are involved in direct patient care are among the high-priority groups named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in influenza vaccination recommendations. Thus, it must be said: Physician, vaccinate thyself.

By rolling up their sleeves and facing the syringe, physicians and other health professionals can reduce the flu's transmission to patients and minimize its spread among staff, therefore reducing the number of sick days and lessening the flu's impact on patient care. The intranasal vaccine, FluMist, is also an appropriate alternative for many health care workers. They tend to be healthy adults and most fall into the appropriate age range for the vaccine -- 5 to 49 years old.

Regardless of the means, being vaccinated is also important for another reason. Physicians should lead by example.

The American Medical Association has long been active in communicating this reminder. The Association even has policy urging hospitals and long-term care facilities to take steps to measure and maximize the rate of flu immunization among these professionals.

At the same time, the AMA has worked on the broader goals of increasing coverage for the population as a whole and stabilizing the vaccine supply. The Association's leadership, along with the CDC, in convening the National Influenza Vaccine Summit has been critical to helping physicians help patients during the recent years' shortages and disruptions. For example, participants in the annual summit also maintain contact throughout the year to discuss flu-related issues.

In the current flu season, there appears to be reason for encouragement. Experts estimate that at least 71 million doses of vaccine -- with more possible -- will be on hand.

In the months ahead, then, doctors should make a habit of recommending the flu vaccine at every clinical opportunity. It's another basic truth that for many people the advice of a physician remains the tipping point toward healthy behaviors.

Studies have shown that many patients decide to receive the flu vaccine only when their physician recommends it. This conversation, too, can encourage pneumococcal vaccine for patients 65 and older and for those of any age with an underlying medical condition. According to the CDC, an estimated 60,000 cases of invasive pneumococcal disease, and 6,000 deaths, occur annually -- the bulk of which strike adults who are in categories targeted for vaccination.

It is also critical to keep in mind who is at greatest risk for the flu and its complications. For the 2005-06 season, this includes people living in long-term care facilities; those who are 65 and older; those who have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, chronic bronchitis or HIV; children 6 months to 23 months old; pregnant women; household contacts or out-of-home caregivers of children younger than 6 months; and hurricane evacuees living in shelters.

The most important thing to remember in the months ahead is to give and get the shot. This annual necessity for millions of Americans benefits everyone.

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External links

AMA's National Influenza Vaccine Summit (link)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on influenza (link)

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