Opinion: A critical role now for health professionals

Communicating effectively with the public and patients will be key as COVID-19 accelerates.

As deaths in Georgia from COVID-19 continue to march towards 10,000, and cases towards a half million, there is no “political vaccine” against disinformation to accompany the coming biological one. Local health professionals throughout Georgia will have to administer both to reverse the trend.

National attention is focused on whether and how government officials, including the victors in Georgia’s Senatorial race, will work to create a political vaccine. Will they be the allies of Georgia’s health professionals in prioritizing and conveying the legitimacy of science and urgency of evidence-based medical care?

Jeffrey Lerner

Credit: ECRI Institute

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Credit: ECRI Institute

Local action is now our best hope of setting examples for following good public measures and providing guidance for protecting one another and ensuring schools and businesses operate as safely as possible until both the vaccines and better treatments help stem the rising tide of illness.

Public bodies are, increasingly, taking public stances. The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Hospital Association, representing healthcare professionals from both Democratic and Republican parties, are united in pleading with the public to adhere to scientific guidance by wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and washing hands frequently. But their efforts have not proved to be enough to get the needed results.

Norbert Goldfield   SONY DSC

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Overcoming resistance to science-based approaches will need local leaders - people who deliver the messages and provide the advice that stands a better chance of being followed by more local citizens. That’s where health professionals, especially, come in, accepting that they need to redefine what it means to provide “frontline care.” Public health is the new frontline care because it is the most effective means we currently have to spare people unnecessary illness, misery, and death.

People living in smaller cities, towns and rural areas of Georgia, as well as poorer residents in the most densely populated big cities, have an especially high proportion of residents at high risk for the worst outcomes from the virus because of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. The issues here are more challenging than in some other areas of the state.

Sixty-eight percent of the public trust Dr. Fauci from the National Institutes of Health, and nurses are the nation’s most-trusted profession for their honesty and ethics according to a recent Gallup poll, as they have been for the last 18 years of the survey. Engineers and doctors are second and third .

While many people, including those reading this op-ed, have their own physician or health care professional that they work with for personal health, they may still need to know more about the evolving research in science behind vaccines and other public health practices. Health professionals can translate uncertainties and controversies publicly in ways outside the clinic through writing opinion pieces or speaking at community events.

The task shouldn’t be left solely to media commentators, even if they are sometimes reliable medical professionals. Local engagement is key to success. Medical terms and reasoning can be obscure to many people and need to be conveyed by trusted health professionals that people may meet in their everyday lives. This more-public role is an unaccustomed one for most professionals working in healthcare, but it is a necessity now.

Health professionals in Georgia can speak to and on behalf of their patients on issues that go beyond direct virus ones, such as measles, flu and shingles vaccinations and attention to substance abuse prevention.

Health professionals can help Georgians understand the positions of the senatorial candidates and in future local elections. For those who want to work more politically, there are organizations such as Ask Nurses and Doctors that provides guidance for responsible political expression of a broader view on health system reform.

But now is the moment for every health professional to widely distribute the “political vaccine” against unreliable health information on the frontline because it is a duty both for ourselves and our patients.

When I, Dr. Goldfield, speak to my patients about the flu vaccine, they often broaden the conversation, saying they do not want the COVID vaccine. I reassure them that I and many others will be evaluating information on the virus vaccine(s) safety. As these vaccines are made more available, they will become an important addition to masks, distancing, handwashing, and, yes, taking the flu vaccine too.

Issues of who gets earliest access to the vaccines will also be an issue, in part because much of the decision-making will rest with local entities like health systems and regional health departments. Trust in the process will be linked to who delivers and explains the rationale, and whether it is seen as reasonably fair, even if it is imperfect.

The only true way to honor the dead and sick COVID-19 victims and their families is to help stop adding to their numbers. So let’s do this together, fellow health professionals and citizens.

Jeffrey. C. Lerner, Ph.D., is president emeritus of The Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) and senior adjunct fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Norbert Goldfield, M.D., is a practicing internist and founder of Ask Nurses and Doctors.