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Physicians And The H1N1 Flu

Yesterday I visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and was taken inside the command center, where almost 100 staffers have been working around the clock to monitor and stem the current outbreak of flu.

I first spoke to Toby Crafton, the manager of the command center, who oversees the day-to-day operations. He and his team have been preparing for a possible pandemic of flu or another infectious illness for years. I also spoke to Michael Shaw, PhD, who heads up the virology labs that are studying the H1N1 virus causing the current outbreak. He’s spent a career learning the laboratory techniques that are so urgently needed right now. The third person I spoke to was Dr. Richard Besser, Acting Director of the CDC, who has been working at the agency for 13 years and is an extensively published expert in infectious diseases.

I mentioned that last week I had received an email notification from the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH) about how I should be managing my patients with flu-like symptoms. The advice was actually not intuitively obvious to me. For example, the Department of Health said that for patients with mild illness, treatment with anti-viral meds like Tamiflu and Relenza was only recommended for patients who also had underlying conditions that increased their risk for complications due to influenza. Dr. Besser pointed out that it was especially important right now for physicians to stay up to date with the recommendations being made by public health officials. Doctors can contact their local department of health and sign up for the same type of email notification that I received.

This brings us to the main point of today’s blog post. Many of us – patients and physicians alike – have been thinking about the influenza virus for about a week. Public health officials like the teams at the CDC and the NYCDOH have been thinking about it for years. Physicians, me included, are used to practicing medicine based on “clinical judgment.” We understand that medicine is an art and not a science, that there are many different ways to approach a problem, that there’s often no clear “right” or “wrong.” We are also used to doing things “our way”, whatever that way is. But this is not a time for doing things “our way” if it’s at significant odds with strong recommendations being made by public health officials. There are recommendations that may seem logical – like prescribing medication for somebody with mild flu symptoms “just in case” that nevertheless go against the judgment of people who have trained for years to think about how to deal with an epidemic.

What if you’re a physician who strongly disagrees with a suggestion of public officials? Then challenge that recommendation publicly. Bring the discussion to light; maybe you’re right. While this is no time to go rogue, doctors have an obligation to think carefully and independently and to challenge recommendations that seem illogical. But don’t silently do things your own way.

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