Should Nurses Be Forced to Get Flu Shots?

nurses-flu-shots
Concern for the health of patients has prompted many hospitals to require all of their employees to get the flu shot or lose their jobs. But what about the right of patients in this case doctors and nurses to refuse any medical procedure they feel is unnecessary? Are these hospitals going too far, or is it reasonable to require nurses to be vaccinated?

Let’s take a look at the arguments on both sides.

The Argument for Mandatory Flu Shots

There are three main arguments hospitals set forth as justification for requiring nurses to get flu shots:

  1. Patient safety. Gail Shulby, chief of staff and clinical affairs for the Duke University Health System cites patient safety as the organization’s primary motivation for requiring flu shots. Hospitals don’t want their patients to contract the flu from the doctors and nurses who treat them.
  2. Effectiveness of the vaccine. In an interview with Karin Lillis, Jorge P. Parada, MD, MPH, FACP, FIDSPA, director of Loyola University Medical Center’s infection control program, said that the flu vaccine works about 70% of the time. That’s a significant reduction in risk from a single shot.
  3. Staff at increased risk. It makes sense that health care professionals would be at increased risk for contracting the flu since they are around sick people all day. Hospitals want to reduce the occurrence of flu among their employees not just to protect patients, but also to protect their bottom line. Doctors and nurses who get the flu use more sick days than those who don’t.

The Argument for Allowing Doctors and Nurses to Decide for Themselves

The National Vaccine Information Center argues the other side on their website. It’s a long article, but I recommend reading it if you have time. I’ll just summarize the main points of the case against mandatory vaccination here:

  1. Side effects. The flu vaccine has been linked to increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Research published in the Eurosurveillance journal indicates that one flu vaccine, Fluvax, may cause 2-3 times as many hospitalizations for seizures as it prevents for the flu.
  2. It sets a precedent. If it’s OK to force doctors and nurses to be vaccinated, will they come after the rest of the population next? What is going to happen to a patient’s right to refuse medical treatments they don’t agree with. 
  3. It’s unnecessary. Most people who are healthy when they contract the flu do not experience any adverse effects and are left with a natural immunity to the virus that made them ill.

Alternatives to Forcing Nurses to Get the Flu Shot

The influenza vaccine is not the only solution to preventing the spread of flu during the flu season. Some of the alternatives are quite simple and effective.

  1. Hand washing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, keeping your hands clean is the best way to keep infections from spreading. Wash your hands frequently, and if you need medical care, make sure your doctor and other healthcare workers who attend to you wash their hands as well.
  2. Masks. In a healthcare setting, workers can prevent the spread of airborne diseases such as the flu through the proper use of masks.
  3. Isolation. Keeping patients who are sick with the flu isolated from others is also an effect way to prevent the spread of the disease.

The CDC reports that among healthcare workers in settings where employees are required to get the flu vaccine, around 96.5% opt to get vaccinated rather than risk being fired. If compliance is the goal, then obviously it works. But is it the right thing to do? What do you think?

Sources: