Anthrax scare reveals need to initiate plan for information dissemination

Are you sure your facility’s ready?

Most health care facilities have in place plans for an emergency response to a bioterrorist attack, yet recent events have revealed the need to take a second look. That’s exactly what senior personnel at New York Presbyterian Hospital did, forming a task force with another hospital and other health care agencies.

"The purpose of the task force is to ensure we are in a maximum state of readiness to prepare for and respond to any emergency arising from biological agents," says Virginia A. Forbes, MSN, RNC, CNA, patient education coordinator at the hospital in New York City. The task force is focusing on three areas — surveillance and public health, consumer and health provider education and information, and hospital response and readiness.

Information and updates to staff are delivered in a timely fashion through department heads, memos, and e-mail. The task force provides information to reduce fear and uncertainty and to help staff understand the facts about biological agents, says Forbes. "Memos and e-mails are written in simple question-and-answer format to direct attention to commonly asked questions," she says.

Being able to provide updates on information promptly and being flexible are important, says Adam Brase, a communications consultant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. "You need to be proactive, but you need to be ready to react because obviously, you don’t know what is going to come around the next corner. In some cases, you have to wait and see what happens and react to it," he says.

During the spread of anthrax through the U.S. Postal Service in the fall of 2001, staff at Mayo worked diligently to educate health care providers issuing information on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Delivering pertinent facts meant tracking calls to determine what types of questions people were asking and keeping tabs on what was happening in the news media, says Brase.

During the time anthrax was being spread through letters in the mail, medical staff were issued information on anthrax and other biological agents via e-mail in question-and-answer format. Physicians were provided the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The employee news-letter also covered the topic with one issue listing all the biological agents that could potentially be used and providing background information on them and what their real threat was to staff. (For more information on where to go for timely information, see "Information at your fingertips aids in education," in this issue.)

"Before the anthrax incident, there was some question about what biological agents there are out there, and we initially started on that track, but then the focus changed to anthrax. Now we are seeing a little bit of a shift again," says Brase.

Providing more than facts

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the subsequent anthrax scare, Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago took a holistic approach to staff education through addressing mind, body, and spirit. An expert from the outpatient psychology department addressed managers at a hospitalwide meeting discussing post-traumatic stress, says Magdalyn Patyk, MS, RN, a patient education consultant at the health care facility. Also mentioned were the systems of support that are in place for employees.

The employee newsletter listed employee assistance programs in the outpatient psychology area to help staff cope with any emotional problems from the recent events that might affect their work. Also, two short pieces on post-traumatic stress disorder that cover what people can do for themselves as well as others was placed on the hospital’s Internet home page. (For information about addressing the fear for both staff and consumers arising from uncertain times, see "Gaining control over the fear factor," in this issue.)

With more calls coming into the Health Learning Center from consumers concerning bioterrorism, two web site links were placed on the hospital’s Internet site and on its intranet. These were:

"Staff in the learning center are not qualified to field specific questions. They are there strictly to provide information," says Patyk. Therefore, they are armed with a list of resources, such as the number for "Ask a Nurse," while at the same time have appropriate Internet sites marked so that they can provide information on bioterrorism.

While people are clamoring for factual information, such as the signs and symptoms of anthrax exposure or how to overcome the fear of bioterrorism, spiritual healing after a disaster is important as well. The chaplains at Northwestern Memorial Hospital conducted a Day of Remembrance service following the terrorist attacks. "A mind, body, spirit approach is important. People need more than an information sheet with the facts," says Patyk.


For more information about addressing bioterrorism through education, contact:

  • Adam Brase, Communications Consultant, Mayo Clinic, Ozmun East 6, Room 6-41, Rochester, MN, 55905. Telephone: (507) 266-2641. E-mail:
  • Virginia A. Forbes, MSN, RNC, CNA, Patient Education Coordinator, New York Presbyterian Hospital, 525 E. 68th St., New York, NY 10021. Telephone: (212) 746-4094. E-mail:
  • Magdalyn Patyk, MS, RN, Patient Education Consultant, Nursing Development, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 251 E. Huron, Suite 4-708, Chicago, IL 60611-2908. Telephone: (312) 926-2173. E-mail: