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A Word From the President: Responding to Ebola and Preparing for Future Outbreaks

AAMC Reporter: January 2015

The Ebola outbreak this fall was a sobering reminder that we must be ready to respond to a public health crisis at a moment’s notice. I will never forget the day I spent in early August at a meeting of the Blue Ridge Academic Health Group. A number of our colleagues from Emory University Hospital were in attendance, and I learned from them that the first Ebola patient had arrived on U.S. soil from West Africa and was being transferred to Emory.

In those early days of the Ebola crisis, I shared the fear that the first two patients who arrived in our country were only the beginning of a massive influx of Ebola patients, and that this crisis could spread to our health care workers and the general population. Thanks in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of our colleagues at Emory, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital Center, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we have not seen the number of patients that some predicted. Ebola has started to recede from the headlines as it becomes clear that, in the United States, this was primarily an epidemic of fear.

However, it is inevitable that we will face a public health epidemic from a highly infectious agent again at some time in the future. While Ebola remains a major public health crisis in West Africa, for those of us in the United States, the outbreak should serve as a warning of the threat that infectious diseases pose on a global scale. It is critical that we both respond to outbreaks where they occur and ensure our preparedness at home. As we assess our response to the outbreak and turn our attention to preparing for future public health crises, I am reminded again of how, when a major health care threat requires an urgent response, the nation turns to academic medical centers (AMCs).

Our member institutions brought all of the unique attributes of academic medicine’s three-fold mission of education, patient care, and research to bear in confronting the Ebola crisis. In addition to providing exceptional patient care, the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals, as well as their faculty and staff, have played a critical role in other aspects of the response, including developing and testing vaccines, delivering care in West Africa, and educating health professionals about successful patient protocols and biocontainment.

Our community also worked closely with state and federal officials to ensure that institutions and health care professionals were trained and equipped to treat Ebola patients, and we urged our elected officials to support a robust domestic preparedness program and on-the-ground response. This fall, the AAMC established an internal Ebola Response Team, which played a central coordinating and communications role among our member institutions, the Obama administration, and other stakeholders. We were gratified when the administration announced, on Dec. 2, a network of Ebola-ready treatment centers nationwide. Of the 36 designated institutions, 32 are AAMC-member teaching hospitals. In addition, we supported the passage of a federal government spending bill that includes $5.4 billion in emergency supplemental funding for Ebola treatment and prevention measures in the United States and West Africa, as well as a $150 million increase for the NIH.

While the Ebola crisis has raised awareness of the urgent need to prepare for a widespread public health emergency, it also has demonstrated the essential role that medical schools and teaching hospitals play in the nation’s health care system. As the Ebola threat at home begins to fade, we must use this time to ensure a long-term, sustained investment in our nation’s health care preparedness. In addition to being the first to respond in a public health crisis, AMCs serve as the training ground for America’s health care workforce. As leaders in serving the nation’s health, we are responsible for providing a learning environment that prepares our doctors to respond to novel threats, recognize symptoms of highly infectious diseases, and follow the proper protocol to isolate and treat patients safely. But essential to sustaining the learning environment at AMCs—which includes state-of-the-art facilities, the most advanced medical knowledge, and the latest technology—is the support that our institutions receive from the federal government for direct and indirect graduate medical education, as well as medical research.

When the 114th Congress is sworn in this month, we must stress to our elected representatives the value of AMCs and educate them about the resources necessary to protect the nation’s health—from being ready to respond to the next public health emergency to providing high-value, high-quality care to a growing and aging population. Specifically, we must urge them to restore the NIH budget to presequestration levels and commit to providing sustained, predictable, long-term growth of the budget that at a minimum equals biomedical inflation. We also must educate lawmakers about the critical importance of the federal support it provides to teaching hospitals, both to ensure a robust learning environment for training tomorrow’s doctors and to make certain there are enough doctors to provide the care our nation needs in the years ahead.

I am extremely proud of how our member medical schools and teaching hospitals once again stepped up to respond in a moment of crisis. I applaud the resilience of our doctors who have treated Ebola patients in the United States or traveled to provide care in West Africa. I am inspired by the way our institutions have responded, not knowing whether their significant investment would be repaid. As we enter a new year, all of us at the AAMC look forward to working with our member institutions to strengthen medical care, improve the nation’s health, and ensure our readiness to contribute to the safety and security of the country.