How Do Epidemics Affect Healthcare?

Disease outbreaks occur on various levels, and depending on the spread of the disease, they may be called an epidemic or a pandemic. An epidemic is a disease outbreak that is limited to a specific area or region, whereas a pandemic is a disease outbreak that crosses multiple national and international borders. The COVID-19 virus is a recent example of a pandemic, while cholera, influenza, and smallpox are examples from history. Throughout the course of an epidemic or pandemic, the healthcare industry and healthcare providers must deal with serious challenges until the situation is under control.

Although a pandemic might result in a global health emergency, epidemics are equally dangerous for humanity as they are more frequent and can. cause a similar amount of damage. The healthcare sector is significantly impacted by pandemics and epidemics in a number of different ways.

Major epidemics in world history

Here is a look at some of the major epidemics that humanity has experienced.

Prehistoric epidemic

An epidemic wiped out an entire ancient Chinese community approximately 5,000 years ago. Historians found a burned-down home with stacks of dead bodies inside of people of all ages, including children, teenagers and adults. It is one of northeastern China’s best-preserved ancient sites and is currently known as “Hamin Mangha.” According to anthropological and archaeological research, the outbreak struck too swiftly to allow for adequate burial, and the area was never occupied again.

Plague (Athens)

An illness that plagued Athens for five years struck shortly after the start of the conflict between Sparta and Athens. According to some estimates, the death toll might have reached 100,000. People in good health would suddenly have terrible fevers, redness, and inflammation of the eyes, as well as internal bleeding and an unnatural, fetid breath. The exact type of illness that caused this disease is still unknown, but experts often relate the epidemic to an Ebola virus and typhoid fever.

Cocoliztli epidemic

15 million people died in Mexico and Central America as a result of a viral hemorrhagic fever infection that caused the Cocoliztli pandemic. An already drastically diminished population caused by a severe drought turned out to be entirely devastated by the sickness. The Aztec word “Cocoliztli” means “pest”.

In a recent investigation, DNA from the bones of the victims revealed that they had been infected with S. paratyphi C, a subspecies of Salmonella that causes enteric fevers such as typhoid. Today, enteric fever remains a serious health risk because it can result in high temperature, dehydration and gastrointestinal issues.

Yellow fever epidemic

Philadelphia was the capital of the US and its biggest city when yellow fever struck the country. At the time, officials made the mistaken assumption that slaves were resistant to this fever, which meant that many people of African descent were tasked with caring for the ill.

Mosquitoes, which carry and spread the disease, saw a rise in population that summer in Philadelphia due to the extreme heat and humidity. The outbreak didn’t end until the winter months when the mosquito population dropped off. More than 5,000 individuals had passed away by then.

Polio epidemic

There was a polio outbreak in the United States that started in New York City and led to 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Children were the main victims of the illness, which occasionally left survivors permanently disabled.

Until the discovery of the Salk vaccine in 1954, occasional polio outbreaks were common in the US. As immunization became widely available, the number of cases in the US dropped significantly. The final case of polio in the US was documented in 1979. Despite not yet being totally eliminated, the illness has significantly decreased because of global immunization campaigns.

The AIDS Epidemic/Pandemic

Since AIDS was first discovered, an estimated 35 million individuals have died from the disease. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, presumably originated from an African chimp virus that infected humans in West Africa during the early 1920s. AIDS had spread to every nation in the world by the turn of the 20th century. Of the estimated 40 million people living with the human immunodeficiency virus, 64% reside in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the fact that there was no known treatment for the illness for a very long time, modern medication has enabled patients to have normal lives with consistent use. Two people have been healed of HIV as of early 2020, which is even more hopeful.

Ebola epidemic

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan saw the first recorded cases of Ebola in 1976, and the virus may have come from bats. The worst Ebola outbreak occurred in West Africa, where more than 11,000 people died from 2014 to 2016.

Due to lax surveillance and an underdeveloped public health system, cases were difficult to identify before they could spread. This outbreak’s devastation was further exacerbated by inadequate infection control procedures and overburdened healthcare infrastructure.

Zika virus epidemic

It will take several years before South and Central America can fully assess the effects of the recent Zika pandemic. Scientists are currently in a battle against time to contain the virus. Aedes mosquitoes are the primary vector for the transmission of the Zika virus, and people can also get it through sexual contact.

Zika can affect newborns while they are still in the womb and cause birth abnormalities, despite the fact that it normally has no negative effects on adults or children. Because Zika-carrying mosquitoes thrive in hot, humid regions, South America, Central America, and some of the southern United States are ideal locations for the virus to spread.

Who sees patients during an epidemic?

All healthcare professionals, including doctors, physicians, and nurses, are responsible for attending to patients during an epidemic. However, the workload of nurses is undoubtedly greater than anyone else in a hospital. Regardless, the job of a nurse is highly rewarding and satisfying.

Individuals who wish to pursue a career as nurses in a healthcare environment must be educated, skilled and qualified. The minimum education required to kickstart your career as a nurse is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from a reputable institution.

To further strengthen your academic record and build on your expertise, a master’s degree course such as the TWU MSN FNP is ideal. In this course, aspiring nurses will have a chance to build on their theoretical foundations and learn more about evidence-based practice, health policy and healthcare delivery. The course will prepare nurses and enable them to perform to the best of their abilities during an epidemic or pandemic.

How do epidemics affect healthcare?

Epidemics have a significant impact on the healthcare industry. Some of the most common ways in which healthcare and healthcare professionals are affected are highlighted below.

  • Healthcare workforce inadequacies

The most significant effect of epidemics on healthcare is a lack and unequal distribution of medical experts. Nurses aging out of the workforce is a big factor in the anticipated future nursing shortfall, and this means there may not be enough nurses to support a future pandemic.

Another barrier to meeting the current and anticipated future demand for healthcare personnel is a lack of training. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing estimates that in 2020, nursing schools turned away more than 80,000 qualified applicants due to a shortage of clinical locations and personnel.

The composition of the workforce has an influence on equity in healthcare as well. A significant issue in the health industry has been the underrepresentation of diverse communities among nurses, doctors, and other health professionals.

When there are fewer healthcare professionals available to respond, epidemics often increase the strain on the healthcare industry in terms of communication, testing, immunizations and inpatient and outpatient treatment. These patterns of supply and demand are affected by the disease’s changing characteristics and geographical distribution.

An epidemic can also cause higher-than-normal attrition, which makes personnel problems worse. Rural hospitals can be particularly hard hit by epidemics, which only serves to exacerbate staffing and financial issues and can leave people in these areas without adequate healthcare

  • Shortage of resources: Equipment, tools, and medicines

A critical issue that may be encountered during a disease outbreak is a lack of essential items, including basic personal protective equipment (PPE), goggles and face shields, hospital robes and gloves, surgical face masks, and ventilators. Healthcare personnel need more of these items to cope with the endless flood of unwell patients. However, a number of other individuals who work in jobs that involve being near clients, coworkers, or vulnerable populations also need them for work-related reasons. Therefore, these items are highly likely to become scarce during an outbreak.

The high number of patients also means healthcare professionals must contend with medical resource shortages, including insufficient bed spaces in hospitals. As a result, they may be unable to provide proper or high-quality care for patients who need it in the initial stages of a viral or bacterial outbreak. Such a scenario may also cause healthcare workers to experience feelings of guilt and helplessness. All of this can take a serious toll on healthcare workers as they are faced with a stream of ethical dilemmas. 

  • Compromised physical and psychological health among frontline workers

The rates of burnout, exhaustion and mental health problems (including a permanent risk of developing PTSD) among healthcare workers are far greater than those of the general population during a disease outbreak. The biggest psychological load is experienced by nurses and other frontline healthcare professionals, who also endure the strongest mental health effects, such as sadness, anxiety and sleeplessness.

There are several contributing factors, such as the challenging nature of the work, long hours and the emotional toll of caring for patients, along with systemic factors such as payer responsibilities, the legislative and policy backdrop, and the accessibility and acceptance of new technologies.

During pandemics and epidemics, the mental and physical burden increases significantly as healthcare providers must care for more patients than usual. For example, on a normal day, one doctor might see around 20 patients; during a day in an epidemic, they might see upwards of 60 patients. The number of patients often depends on the speed of transmission of the disease from one person to another.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many doctors and nurses had to see numerous patients without taking any breaks. Furthermore, the coronavirus was so deadly and highly transmittable that they faced a serious threat to their own life, which added to their psychological stress.

Many healthcare professionals also face increased physical risks from transmittable infections due to age or chronic illnesses, in addition to mental health issues. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals were three times more susceptible to the virus than the general population, which significantly affected their well-being.

  • Increased burden of work leading to burnout

As highlighted above, when an epidemic affects a region, it increases the workload of the healthcare providers in that area until they are able to effectively take control of the situation. This is because they have to constantly provide care for all the patients that keep coming in with the infection, and as healthcare professionals who took an oath to serve humanity, it is their ethical and moral duty to look after them regardless of their personal situation.

Due to the possibility of infecting their loved ones, many healthcare professionals avoid interactions with family members until the risk of transmission has passed. These situations take a toll on healthcare workers physically and emotionally and can lead to burnout.

Physician burnout has detrimental effects on doctors and nurses, their patients and the healthcare industry. It puts patients at risk and stresses an already overburdened healthcare system. It is also linked to higher rates of medical mistakes and lower productivity. Moreover, healthcare providers who do not have the right strategies to cope with burnout are at risk of issues like alcoholism and depression.

The bottom line

Disease outbreaks can take a significant toll on healthcare workers and overburden the healthcare system. However, it is during these trying times that these professionals have an opportunity to make an incredibly positive impact on society and save countless human lives.