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Ebola In The ER: What Happens To Business As Usual?

Hospitals compete for patients, and Emergency Departments play a big role in business. So what happens to business when a hospital takes on a patient with Ebola? 

On Thursday afternoon, there was no wait time at Texas Health Presbyterian’s emergency room in Dallas.

Usually, it takes about 45 minutes to see a doctor. But less than a week after a patient confirmed to have Ebola came through the ER, it’s not the most popular place.

“If I lived in Dallas and became ill, I would head straight for the Texas Health ER knowing that the waiting lines are so short,” Dr.Albert Wu says.

Wu is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns HopkinsBloomberg School of Public Health. He says even if the fear isn’t rational, the panic will have a short term effect on business.

“Emergency departments are certainly one of the main routes to getting hospital admissions," Wu says, "So for almost every big hospital, the emergency room is a crucial way to get patients.”

Emergency Rooms And Infectious Disease

In most cases, emergency departments don’t choose their patients – sometimes they have the flu, or a heart attack, sometimes its infectious diseases like the measles or tuberculosis.

In 2003, a man showed up at the Lehigh Valley Emergency Room in Allentown Pennsylvania with symptoms that looked like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Dr. Alexander Rosenau, the president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, remembers what happened next.

“One of our physicians recognized the respiratory component together with fever, and came out of the room and asked everyone to immediately glove up [and] put on their respiratory equipment."

Sure enough, he says, the 52-year-old man had SARS. 

The patient was isolated, health-care workers treating him donned face masks and protective clothing. And no one else got sick.

“Human nature is to take a step back when something like that happens, Rosenau says. "It’s part of our job as educated practitioners to let them know where the risk is and what to avoid and where the risk is not.”

Rosenau says the Allentown Emergency Department didn’t suffer as a result of handling the SARS case appropriately.

A Business Opportunity?

Albert Wu at Johns Hopkins says the same thing will probably happen with Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas.

"I expect this is just a blip," Wu says. In fact, it's possible the hospital could actually benefit.

“I’m not sure they’re going to make their reputation on 'we do the best job curing Ebola cases, send them to us!' but they are getting their name mentioned and that might not be a terrible thing.”

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.