Forcing hospital workers to be vaccinated for the flu as a condition of employment is not a prescription for losing employees, according to a new study that found nearly 100 percent compliance with such a program at a Chicago-area hospital.
Instead, mandatory vaccination may be just the medicine to keep both those health-care workers and their hospital patients flu-free, said the study's author, Dr. Jorge Parada.
Fewer than 15 health care workers out of about 8,000 chose automatic termination instead of being vaccinated as ordered since Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., adopted a mandatory vaccination program there in 2009, according to the analysis by Parada, who helped implement the program there.
That almost 100 percent rate compares with a vaccination rate of about 63 percent for all heath- care workers nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
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Since Loyola's move, three states—Rhode Island, Arkansas and Maine—have adopted a mandatory flu vaccination policy for health-care providers, with the threat of penalties as a spur in a number of facilities. What's more, several hundred other hospitals have initiated mandatory-vaccination policies.
"Near-universal flu immunization is achievable and sustainable with a mandatory vaccination policy," said Parada, who is presenting the analysis of mandatory vaccination rates at Loyola at the 40th Annual Conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology in Fort Lauderdale.
And by possibly stemming the flu rates of hospital workers, the policy "does save money for employees and employers, and prevents workplace disruption," he said. "If someone is sick and then they have to take an anti-viral medication, that's going to be much more expensive than not having the infection in the first place."
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Loyola University Medical Center was just the third U.S. hospital to adopt a mandatory flu vaccination program. Parada said his hospital went to a get-vaccinated-or-get-fired program after 2008. That is when the center's overall vaccination rate was boosted to 72 percent after the implementation of a program requiring workers to explain their reasoning for not getting the shots if they declined vaccination.
"This was still well short of what we at Loyola felt we should achieve to maximize patient safety," he said. Loyola's mandatory vaccination program—which included students, volunteers and contractors—lead to 99.2 percent compliance in the first year.
Last year, there was 98.7 percent compliance. But Parada said that out of the five people who refused vaccination, three were unpaid volunteers who later reconsidered and returned to the medical center, while the other two were part-timers.
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At least 15 health-care providers nationwide, including nurses, were reportedly fired in the most recent flu season for refusing vaccinations—a tiny fraction of the total employees at their institutions.
Among them were Indiana cancer nurse Joyce Gingerich, who told the Associated Press that vaccinations should be a choice, not a condition of employment, and that she considers mandated vaccinations "the injustice of being forced to put something in my body."
George Gresham, President of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the nation's largest healthcare union with over 400,000 nurse and caregiver members, said: "We have worked closely with hospitals, nursing homes and home care agencies to encourage workers to receive the flu vaccination, because we believe it protects our patients, our members and their families. However, we do not believe that employers should mandate vaccinations, because that eliminates the rights of workers to make a very personal choice about their health."
But Parada said that mandatory-vaccination policies are just common sense when it comes to dealing with the flu, which leads to 150,000 hospital admissions and 24,000 deaths annually.
"We're talking about a serious illness that happens every year—it's not going away," he said. "Health-care workers can get infected by influenza, and they can transmit this virus to their patients, many of whom are already vulnerable."
"You can't go on a construction site without a hard hat and steel-toed boots," Parada said.
A CDC spokeswoman told CNBC that the federal health agency "does not make any recommendation for mandatory vaccination of health-care workers."
However, a CDC fact sheet notes that high vaccination rates among hospital staff "have been associated with a lower risk of nocosomial [hospital-acquired]" influenza. "Influenza vaccination levels among health-care workers can reduce influenza-related illnesses and even deaths, in settings like nursing homes."
Conversely, the CDC document states, flu outbreaks at hospitals and long-term-care facilities "have been attributed to low influenza vaccination coverage among health-care workers in those facilities.
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @danpostman.