It’s Never Too Early to Plan for Flu Season

flu seasonLike the weather, flu season is unpredictable. You can expect it to hit in the winter months, but you have no idea how severe it will be. And despite your best planning, it can surprise you.

“Hospitals are consistently caught off guard by an unexpectedly high volume of flu cases,” said Marcia Faller, PhD, RN, who is Chief Clinical Officer for AMN Healthcare.

The earlier you plan for the onslaught, the better. Flu season typically lasts from December through February, but it can start as early as October and hang around through May. Or it can start late. This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health advisory announcing that flu season had begun – in February.

Like the Boy Scout Motto: Be Prepared

For hospitals and healthcare organizations to be better prepared, Faller advises they examine their existing staffing plans for flu season to see what they’ve done in years past to manage resources, review current staffing, and project what they’ll need in the subsequent months. And that’s just for starters.

“Clearly, the plan needs to be dynamic as opposed to static,” she said, “because once the plan is in place for what is known today, revisions will need to be made based on what is actually occurring. The plan should be reviewed consistently every two to four weeks until it is time to actually start hiring more nurses.”

If it seems too early to plan, consider a study on hospital responses to mild and severe flu pandemics. Conducted at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in Texas, the study noted that utilization of hospital beds, ventilators and other resources would be exceeded in two to three weeks in a severe pandemic.

“Even at maximal hospital expansion for a 12-week severe pandemic with a 35% attack rate,” the study states, “there would be peak demand for 214% of available non-ICU beds, 785% of ICU beds, and 392% of ventilators.”

Even a Mild Flu Season Can be Demanding

While not every flu season reaches epidemic proportions, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) from 2009 to 2010, the numbers from a less severe season can be jarring. For the 2014-2015 flu season, there were approximately 19 million flu-associated medical visits and 970,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations in the United States, according to CDC estimates.

As healthcare organizations start planning for flu season, they should keep an eye on what the CDC is reporting, Faller said. The CDC will provide updates on what to expect for flu season, what flu strains may be prevalent, and how severe situations may be.

“You really need to monitor the CDC,” Faller said, “so that that you can adjust your plan as you get more information.”

Flu season also means hospitals must hire additional nurses to care for patients, such as in the ICU or other areas requiring acute care. Outpatient services, on the other hand, have a need for nurses who are identifying high risk people who should absolutely be immunized and administering immunizations to the influx of people who want flu shots, Faller said.

One reason to plan now for additional hiring is the growing nursing shortage and the aging of the patient population, which is creating increased demand for nurses. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are finding it increasingly difficult to get their orders completely filled for contingent nurses. One solution is to start early on orders for nurses.

“As each year goes by, filling orders for contingent nurses may become more difficult,” Faller said. “The earlier you start in contracting for nurses, the more likely you are to have the quantity and quality you need when the flu season hits.”

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