SARS: Why should home health pay attention?

Don’t panic patients, but be aware

With more than 7,500 suspected and probable cases worldwide and 573 deaths, according the the World Health Organization, as we go to press, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been in the news for many months.

Although there only were 345 total cases reported in the United States as of publication date, it is important for home health staff to be aware of the disease and know how to protect their patients.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the majority of SARS cases in the United States are related to traveling to other countries in which the outbreak is severe.

A much smaller risk

There are a few cases of secondary infection of health care workers or close family members of people with the illness. States with the highest incidence of suspected or probable SARS cases are California, New York, and Washington.

Because home health patients are not likely to be traveling to other countries for which the CDC has issued travel advisories, the more important issue is for home health personnel to make sure that family members or caregivers with any illness avoid contact with patients as much as possible if they have any symptoms of any illness, says Michele L. Pearson, MD, medical epidemiologist for the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

Don’t push the panic button

"I wouldn’t want a home health nurse to alarm an entire family by suggesting that someone has SARS because the symptoms are very nonspecific," she says. "If, however, through conversations with family members and patients, the nurse discovers that the person fits the profile of suspected SARS, which is travel to a SARS-affected area, the nurse will want to recommend that the person see a physician," she adds.

"I agree that SARS may not have great application to home health care at this time," says Greg Solecki, vice president of Henry Ford Health Care in Detroit.

"However, I remember when HIV/AIDS was a new phenomenon. The community was in an uneducated state of panic. Due to the hysteria in this market, providers were reluctant to care for HIV/AIDS patients," he points out.

Because Henry Ford Hospital became an HIV/ AIDS center of excellence, Henry Ford Home Health Care had a disproportionately large HIV/ AIDS patient population early on, Solecki says.

"The key to keeping our cool and making a difference to our patients was the early education we received. I think the same holds true for SARS," he adds. "The more we know about the syndrome, the better equipped we will be when it’s our turn to deal with it."

(Editor’s note: For up-to-date information on SARS, go to the CDC SARS web site: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars/.

The site includes the latest advisories, reports of cases, information for health care personnel, and frequently asked questions.)