Health Care Professionals Get Emotional When Epidemics Hit Home

September 12, 2014
Aimee Simone, Associate Editor

Health care professionals base their opinions on analytical knowledge for threats abroad and on personal experience for threats at home.

Health care professionals base their opinions on analytical knowledge for threats abroad and on personal experience for threats at home.

When the threat of an epidemic is close to home, health care professionals (HCPs) may be more optimistic about the risks within their communities, results from a recent study suggest.

The study, published in the August 2014 issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, analyzed the unique positions of HCPs as part of the health care system and the public, and how these roles affect their perceptions of risk.

In the study, HCPs from Israel completed surveys about the real-world H7N9 2013 influenza outbreak in China and a hypothetical scenario in which the virus spread to Israel. For each situation, the participants were asked whether they supported a vaccine-based solution, given the new vaccine was effective. Then, their responses were compared to those of the general Israeli public.

The results indicated that HCPs are able to think analytically about an epidemic when it is outside of their community, but when the threat is close to home, they base their opinions on emotions, similar to the general public.

When asked about the outbreak in China, the HCPs supported vaccination significantly more than members of the general public. In explaining their responses, HCPs tended to base their reasoning on analytic knowledge more than the general public. Only 11% of HCPs referred to unfounded explanations in their answers, compared to 64% of the general public who explained their answers with responses such as “I don’t why, it just sounds unsafe.”

However, when the HCPs were asked whether they supported an immunization program for an outbreak in Israel, their level of support did not significantly differ from that of the general public. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in the reasoning used by HCPs and the public, since both groups tended to base their answers on experimental reasoning more than analytical reasoning. Those who did analyze the situation logically, however, were more likely to support vaccination in Israel than those who based their opinions on personal experience.

“When they were asked in the second scenario about their attitude toward vaccination if the epidemic occurred in their close environment, their answers reflected feelings, fears, and their prior experience from past epidemics and integrated all of these, leading to less clear-cut and unequivocal answers,” the study authors explained.

A phenomenon known as “optimistic bias” also might have influenced the risk perceptions of the HCPs who participated in the study.

“In the context of our findings, health care workers attached greater risk to what was going on 'over there' in China than to what was happening at home,” the authors wrote. “In other words, when something happens to other people in another place, the risk is perceived as worse than when it is close by. When the risk hit home, they brought in alleviating and optimistic perceptions as to the severity of their condition.”