Ebola and The Erosion of Trust

The Ebola crisis has revealed the best in health care workers and the worst. It is commendable that so many would put their lives on the line to treat the suffering. Organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Doctors Without Borders are doing God’s work. What they are doing highlights the heroism that many health-care professionals possess. However, recent actions (and attitudes) of some health care workers who were directly exposed to Ebola have brought about valid criticism. Some have been hesitant to question their actions because of their selflessness in treating those afflicted with Ebola. This is understandable, but a mistake based on emotion and not reason.

The two individuals who have come under the most scrutiny are nurse Vinson and Dr. Spencer. Both treated people who were infected and died from Ebola. Yet both failed to properly self-quarrantine. They took public transportation where they potentially exposed hundreds of people. Nurse Vinson’s actions caused a wedding boutique to shut down, a plane to be dismantled, and 800 people to be tracked down by the CDC and monitored. Dr. Spencer ate at public restaurant and went to a bowling alley, again potentially exposing hundreds of people to the virus.

Regardless of all the CDC guidelines quoted, these people knew better. They saw how the disease ravages its victims and how it spreads like wildfire. Both are educated health care professionals and one has extensive experience in treating Ebola. That is what makes their actions so puzzling….and concerning. I am concerned that their actions will erode public trust in health care professionals and even more worried that at the heart of the issue is a problematic set of attitudes. I am not sure if it is blind trust in the powers-that-be in public health care (at the expensive of individual critical thinking and inquiry), arrogance, an it-can-never-happen-to-me attitude, or a combination of the three.

It is time for all health care professionals to do some honest soul-searching, and that includes myself. Defensive attitudes and a lack of humility will not rebuild the public trust I fear we all may be in danger of losing. A recent op-ed of sorts by a nurse returning from the front lines of Ebola made me want to hide my head in shame. While I commend her for her selfless service to those suffering from Ebola in Africa, her pettishness about being quarantined at the airport was unreal. I wonder how the Africans she herself likely quarantined in Africa felt. She herself described the sadness of watching a young girl die alone. Perhaps she felt that she was safe because she had PPE equipment on. Maybe she forgot that all of the other health care workers who contracted the virus did as well. After all, being highly educated ( which the nurse in question is) and American does not make you immune to Ebola.

I am sure the screeners at the airport could have been kinder and more empathetic. We certainly do not want to treat people who are risking their lives for others disrespectfully. But a little grace goes a long way for the screeners who never imagined they would be on the front lines in a battle against a deadly virus. Sadly, they have learned that lately they have had to protect the public from health care professionals who should know better.  I am puzzled by this nurse’s hostile reaction (she has since retained a lawyer). I would think that after seeing the devestation that Ebola has brought to Africa she would be willing to do anything to keep it from spreading in the U.S.

As health care professionals the only way we rescue our reputations is to humbly admit we are not invincible or unerring. Pressing for more compassion ( and comfort) with quarantine implementation is perfectly acceptable.  But scoffing at being quarantined yourself after returning from treating those in the Hot Zone appears entitled and to a certain degree hypocritical. After all, I am certain the nurse in question aided in quarantining those in Africa.

Health care professionals must also use common sense and be overly cautious when it comes to Ebola. This helps calm public fears. People feel more safe and are less likely to panic if they know that those in the health care field are going above and beyond to keep them safe.

Lastly, I believe the state medical boards need to inquire into the cases of nurse Vinson and Dr. Spencer to determine if any negligence occurred. This would be a win-win for both the public and the health care workers involved. The facts would be examined and could potentially clear them of any wrongdoing. Either way the public’s trust would be restored by the process.

I only hope that the poor decisions ( and attitudes) made by a few do not leave a permanent black mark on the noble profession of health care. May we all learn from their mistakes.






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