Have Our Top Hospitals and Universities Learned Their Lesson?
Academic medical centers in the U.S. didn’t do enough to combat Ebola in West Africa — that cost us when Covid hit.
I only vaguely remember the frenzied activity as they rushed me from the ambulance to the isolation ward. But I vividly recall the nurse trying to start an intravenous line in my left arm. I watched as she missed three times, hitting a nerve on her last attempt.
Later I learned the nurse had worked in the intensive care unit for over 20 years. And she was part of the team that hours before my arrival ran a drill simulating care for a mock Ebola patient. By any measure, she was the most qualified person to start my IV. Yet she repeatedly failed.
She learned — just as I had a few weeks earlier —that drilling and practice get you only so far when dealing with a deadly infectious disease in real life.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, academic medical centers (hospitals affiliated with medical and public health schools) have played a critical role in the U.S. But they were also woefully underprepared for it.
Some of the reasons for this were obvious — a shortage of protective equipment, chronic underfunding of public health, and the ‘corporatization’ of medicine. But as I recently noted in the Lancet, a failure to implement the lessons learned from previous disease outbreaks—especially the 2014–2016 West Africa Ebola epidemic—also contributed to our imperfect pandemic response.
In 2014, when Ebola hit West Africa, numerous international organizations joined the fight to end the epidemic. They brought expertise from previous outbreaks, medical supplies, and financial assistance. But one of the enduring shortages was actual healthcare providers to take care of Ebola patients in the newly-built treatment centers.
That’s partly because in the places hardest hit by Ebola — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — there were fewer doctors in those three countries combined than in the one hospital where I was treated for Ebola in New York City.
Despite being keenly aware of the need for more healthcare providers, U.S. academic medical centers — including some of the finest…