Michelle Mello, Maria Merritt, and Scott Halpern discuss healthcare institutions’ responsibilities to support their employees’ volunteer efforts in Ebola-affected regions. This is a pre-publication version of a manuscript that has been accepted by PLOS Medicine as a Guest Editorial.
The Ebola epidemic is testing virtually every aspect of the public health and healthcare systems in the U.S., including healthcare institutions’ public service commitments. Although the number of cases in the U.S. remains very small, an extraordinary amount of public and hospital resources have been devoted to preparing for new cases domestically [1, 2, 3, 4] In contrast, although US hospital and medical professional organizations have called for an “enhanced focus” on containing Ebola in West Africa , there is a striking absence of public commitments on the part of US healthcare institutions to contribute to the containment effort.
By quickly mobilizing qualified health care professionals (HCPs) to work in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, U.S. hospitals could not only meet the needs of desperate patients, but could contain Ebola at its source, averting global risk . Yet, US institutions’ response to the West African epidemic has been muted thus far. Reports indicate that many institutions—even those with a tradition of sending personnel to respond to other humanitarian crises—have asked their HCPs to stay home this time [7, 8, 9].
Although some academic medical centers (AMCs) in the U.S. have invoked their usual policy that the university will support overseas work with services such as emergency travel assistance, others have specified that staff who serve in Ebola-affected regions do so in their personal capacity, not as employees. Still others have strongly cautioned against serving, prohibited official travel to affected regions, required staff to take vacation time or unpaid leave for 21 days following repatriation before returning to work, and made clear that the university will not assist if the HCP falls ill.
The concerns that may motivate hospitals to discourage volunteers do not outweigh the countervailing considerations. At a minimum, institutions ought not to impede service; ideally, they would promote it.