Article alarms the public irresponsibly and unfairly maligns some of the most dedicated workers in Canada.
Toronto (22 July 2009) - When it comes to the H1N1 outbreak, it's important that the media in Canada promote vigilance and preparation – not panic.
Unfortunately, an article in the July 21 Toronto Globe and Mail demonstrates that the temptation to sensationalize through emotional headlines and language is often irresistible.
The headline in Tuesday's paper read Mass health-worker absenteeism feared and the accompanying article dealt with a Globe estimate that "somewhere between 40% and 60% of health care workers" get flu shots each season.
That was enough to set the stage for an irresponsible article, loaded with references to "soaring absenteeism" rates, suggesting that health care workers across Canada might abandon their posts in droves if an H1N1 flu epidemic occurs and leave the public with a dysfunctional health care system unable to care for patients.
"Hospital workers are supposed to be first in line for any pandemic influenza vaccine so they can keep Canadian hospitals running during an outbreak, but that strategy hinges on workers agreeing to take an unproven vaccine for an uncertain threat...." the article said.
"But in a serious outbreak of H1N1, the unwillingness of large numbers of doctors, nurses, paramedics and others could lead to soaring absenteeism rates, draining the health-care system of workers just as they are needed most."
And what was the basis of this superheated speculation?
It amounts to a speculative statement by Dr. Perry Kendall, the chief medical officer for B.C., who is paraphrased (not quoted directly) by the writers to have said that a serious outbreak "would lead to soaring absenteeism rates, as doctors, nurses and others are forced home to sick beds."
It's possible the doctor made the statement but even if he did it is not enough for a serious, national newspaper like the Globe to use it as the foundation for such a torqued headline and article.
Neither the doctor nor the three writers of the article provide any substantial proof to back up the statement.
No past epidemics are cited nor is any evidence given to show that health care workers have ever been absent in extraordinary numbers during a crisis – including the 2003 Ontario SARS outbreak. During the SARS crisis front-line health workers set aside their fears and those of their families to work around-the-clock caring for patients. In doing so they showed tremendous dedication and leadership.
Key issues for workers
The rest of the Globe article is mainly background material on past debates over the legality of mandatory flu shots. The writers concede that the law has tended to favour the rights of workers when the issue has arisen in the past.
For example, the Ontario government backed down several years ago when challenged on the basis of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to defend a plan to make flu shots mandatory. Also, in 2001, an arbitrator sided with health care employees fighting mandatory flu shots, finding that a hospital policy violated employees' constitutional right to life, liberty and security of the person.
Moreover, the story also makes only a small reference to the fact that no one knows whether a vaccine to deal with H1N1, which has not been developed yet, will be safe and effective. This is a concern for the general public, not just health care workers, during the current situation.
The fact is that front line health care workers are trained and prepared to face hardship and risk in their jobs. Their dedication is particularly strong during an emergency, such as a pandemic, but it's critical that they feel properly protected, supported and informed by their employer and public health officials.
As they did during the SARS crisis, health care workers will show extraordinary effort, under extreme pressure and intense public scrutiny, in safeguarding patient care.
It's important that national media report facts, not spread fear, about the potential impact of the H1N1 virus to help keep the threat in perspective and prepare accordingly.
In this instance, it seems the Globe and Mail was more interested in boosting circulation during the summer doldrums than keeping the public responsibly informed.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE