A public health crisis is described as an emerging situation that affects a large population, often spanning a wide geographic area, usually in a very short period of time. The severity of the crisis is measured by the number of people affected in relation to the geographic extent or by the intensity of the causative agent, such as a disease, toxin, or poor policy decisions.
Health crisis can occur in many forms and at multiple scales. Health care organizations themselves have internal health crises, which are often in the form of spreading infection. This is so common that hospitals employ infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists to routinely locate and contain disease outbreaks. For instance, in the very first chapter of his book,Â On Washing Hands, Dr. Atul Gawande (2007) describes how inexplicably common it is for hospital personnel to not wash their hands and cause the spread of infections. In the United States, it has been estimated that approximately two million health care associated-infections (HAI) occur each year, resulting in 60,000 to 90,000 deaths. The cost is estimated to be at least $17 to $29 billion (Jarvis, 2007).
At a global scale, health crises may be even more difficult to manage owing to several complexities. This is when the infection rates from super-resistant bacteria have increased throughout the world, and humans travel in unprecedented numbers and at a very fast pace. For example, transmitting primarily through the hands of health care workers, the SARS virusâ€”having first appeared in the Guangdong Province of China in late 2002â€”spread within a few months to over twenty five countries, infecting over 8,000 people and causing 774 deaths, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are several opportunities for such incidents to quickly escalate to crises levels.
Public health emergencies may come from several other sectors as well. In its website, the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lists four major kinds of emergencies:
- Oil or chemical spills
- Biohazard or infectious disease
- Food safety issues
- Terrorism or criminal activity
It is very likely that all of these emergencies will require health care emergency managers to plan and prepare for contingencies.
The outcome of how a crisis is managed is largely dependent on the knowhow, experience, and the personality of the manager. No matter how much planning is done and protocol followed, emergency managers need to have strong leadership qualities in order to handle crises. Having a working knowledge of the health care field is also critical in this context. During an emergent health crisis, the manager needs to coordinate between various groups, communicate decisively and clearly in order to avoid panic, and optimize the distribution of resources.