Don’t ask staff to call in sick: Have them call the sick line’

Hospital tracks employee illnesses

Calling in sick has an extra meaning at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, WI.

The "sick line" helps employee health nurses identify communicable diseases in the community and potentially detect work-related exposures. It also could be a valuable surveillance tool as hospitals stay alert for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Tracking communicable diseases

Last year, 66.4% of 2,001 sick line calls were consistent with communicable diseases, says Kathy Weitekamp, RN, care manager with employee health services.

Predictably, the most common illnesses were upper respiratory (48.7%) and gastrointestinal (40.6%). Weitekamp and her colleagues also monitored trends for other symptoms, including skin rashes, fatigue, dizziness, and sore throats.

"In the summer, the GI infections would go up. In the winter, you have upper respiratory. If you see something out of the ordinary, that’s a clue that something’s going on," says Chris Holland, RN, employee health care manager.

Holland recalls a waterborne outbreak in Milwaukee that led to widespread gastrointestinal illness.

"There was nobody tracking it, or they would have let the health department know right away," Holland says.

Maintaining the sick line is relatively simple. When employees call in sick, they are transferred to the voice-mail system to provide basic information, including the unit they work in and their symptoms. A registered nurse takes the calls and evaluates them for possible follow-up.

Holland and Weitekamp track the information using Excel software and look for obvious trends.

"Sick line helps the hospital in its role as a front line of information on possible outbreaks, says Holland. "We would know if an outbreak is starting," she says.

The nurse monitoring the sick line also would be aware of patients who have a disease, such as meningitis, that could be spread to health care workers. She then would be alert for telltale symptoms among the staff on that unit.

"Our department works very closely with the infection control department," Holland says.