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Health Departments Slow to Respond to Disease Outbreaks
Date:1/3/2008

Researchers posing as doctors often waited hours after calling emergency hotlines

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors or nurses reporting a potentially dangerous infectious disease outbreak may find themselves on hold with their local health department for an hour or more, a new phone survey finds.

That hold time applies only when someone actually picks up -- researchers could not get through on at least one call testing the disease-reporting hotline of two out of five health departments.

Only one in three local health departments connected the researchers -- who portrayed themselves as medical professionals reporting a possible disease outbreak -- with a trained public health professional within 30 minutes.

A timely response is necessary in the event of a disease outbreak, said the team from the Rand Corporation, an independent health policy research program. At the time the research was done, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that a trained public health professional be available to take the confidential details of any outbreak in less than 30 minutes from the time the phone is answered.

For the study, conducted between May and October 2006, the research team placed five to 10 unannounced tests on the telephone-based disease-reporting systems of a representative sample of 74 local health departments nationally. They placed a total of 596 calls posing as a local doctor or nurse seeking to report an urgent, confidential infectious disease case to a trained public health professional.

When the callers reached the public professional, they said the call was just a test, and no further action was needed.

The callers were on hold an average of 63 minutes before they were able to talk to a trained professional, according to the study, published in the February edition of the American Journal of Public Health. The callers were unable to get
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