NHS leaders have recently written a letter to the chief executives of all NHS trusts and foundation trusts to underline the importance of appropriate controls to minimise the spread of influenza ahead of the winter months.
Influenza – or flu – is a potentially fatal disease. The label is often misunderstood and misused by patients, but flu is thought to account for an average of 8,000 deaths a year in England alone. Some years that figure can be as high as 14,000. Patients who are suffering diseases that attack the immune system are particularly susceptible.
The recent letter reminds all trusts of their responsibility to protect staff and patients, implement best practice and assess their performance against that practice. The greatest protection against flu is an annual vaccination and the letter clearly states its ambition to achieve vaccination across all healthcare workers. It urges trusts to maximise uptake of the vaccine among their staff and to engage in detailed risk assessments to identify potential areas of weakness in controlling the spread of the disease.
Trusts are already required to file statistics detailing the monthly uptake of the flu vaccine by their staff. Where staff choose not to be vaccinated, the letter advises trusts to use that information to inform decisions about how they deploy clinical staff, particularly to treat the most vulnerable patients.
This year, for the first time, trusts will also have to report how many healthcare workers were offered the vaccine but chose to opt out. Public Health England will publish the data. The letter suggests trusts should ask those staff who opt out of vaccination to give their reasons – anonymously – for that decision.
Similar letters are aimed at independent providers, including GPs, dentists, optometrists and pharmacists and their staff.
Andrew Clayton, a senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, who advises on potential claims arising out of infection, comments: “The management of infection risk is fundamental. Many patients are already vulnerable because of their health and are therefore at much greater risk of complications. Any infection poses a potential threat, but some – including flu – can be fatal. The target of vaccinating all healthcare workers is ambitious and the reasons are laudable. Collating data on trusts’ progress towards that target needs analysing against the reasons why staff opt out of vaccination programmes. In turn, this should inform what more needs to be done to increase uptake and protect patients.”
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