Georgia public health officials and business executives have established a successful partnership that provides important lessons about the value of government and business cooperation in addressing major public health crises, such as a massive bioterrorist attack, a pandemic or a natural disaster.
A study of the partnership by researchers in the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health has been published by the online journal BMC Public Health, and is available at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/6/285.
"This study illuminates critical cross-sector collaborative practices that can mitigate the effects of the next Katrina, pandemic flu or a bioterrorist attack," said James W. Buehler, MD, Emory research professor of epidemiology, the principal study investigator.
Officials from the Georgia Division of Public Health partnered with members of the Georgia Business Force of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) and with local public health districts in Georgia to improve the capacity of the state and its communities to respond to a large-scale public health emergency.
The partners recognized that during a major public health crisis, community stability depends on the ability of governments and businesses to maintain essential services. Business leaders and public health officials also have realized that if they act independently, neither may be able to respond successfully, despite increased federal support and technical assistance.
The model for cross-sector collaboration was based on developing and testing procedures for dispensing medications from the Strategic National Stockpile, an emergency resource maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This task presented varied and complex logistical, medical and communication challenges--exactly the type of effort that could benefit from public health and business collaboration.
In July 2005, BENS, the Georgia Division of Public Health, and two metro Atlanta public health districts--the DeKalb County Board of Health and the Cobb & Douglas Counties Public Health District--conducted an exercise that tested procedures for mass dispensing of medications for anthrax prevention at three sites. Planning for the exercise engaged people with a diverse mix of business and public health expertise. These sites included two managed by public health staff at local schools and one managed primarily by BENS volunteers at a company facility. Approximately 1,200 volunteers from BENS member companies served as mock patients, dispensing staff or exercise evaluators.
The Emory research team conducted a case study comprising interviews with 26 of the partnership participants, including BENS staff and members, government officials, and university faculty. The researchers found that, initially, business leaders and public health officials had only limited understanding of one another's assets, vulnerabilities and management styles and only limited contacts with one another. Through the partnership, however, this capacity-constraining gap has narrowed and essential working relationships have been established that will sustain effective disaster preparation, response and mitigation.
Operational challenges surfaced as the collaborative work progressed, including concerns about potential liability for businesses engaging in pre-disaster planning and exercises. For example, state-level "Good Samaritan" laws that typically protect individuals during emergencies do not protect companies. Businesses may have concerns about the confidentiality of proprietary information when it is shared with government agencies and about the potential demands on employees' time to participate in voluntary collaborations with public health. As a result of the collaboration, efforts are ongoing to address these hurdles to business and public health collaboration.
Acco rding to the study results, the partnership resulted in the establishment of essential relationships between the public health and the business community in Georgia.
"Although public health and business leaders found that they may speak a different language, these two groups learned they can work together very productively and establish valuable relationships that will serve the community well in time of crisis," Dr. Buehler said. "We believe this collaboration should be a useful model for public health and business leaders in other areas of the country interested in developing similar partnerships."
The partnership was established before Hurricane Katrina, and Georgia's public health-business relationships facilitated efforts by state government officials to engage businesses in meeting the needs of hurricane evacuees, he said. The relationships also enabled collaborations among Georgia businesses and government agencies to support relief efforts in the Gulf region.
Plans are now underway to expand the shared business and public health approach for mass medication dispensing to all five health districts in the metro Atlanta region. BENS also will assist the Georgia Division of Public Health in encouraging businesses across the state to become involved in local pandemic planning and to support efforts that will enable families to provide home care for influenza patients whenever possible, reducing stresses on hospitals during a pandemic.
In addition to Dr. Buehler, other Emory study team investigators included Ruth L. Berkelman, MD, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research and Ellen A. Whitney, MPH, the Center's associate director of research projects. The study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and also supported by the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation.
To learn more about the Metro Atlanta Region of BENS and the Georgia Business Force, see http://www.bens.org/regional-ge.html. For information about the Georgia Division of Public Health, see http://health.state.ga.us/ ###