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New Gown Policy Gains Traction in Pandemic Panic

Eric Frederick |

For months we’ve talked about what to do in case of an H1N1 flu pandemic. I’ve discussed the advisability of starting a reusable-isolation-gown policy to help control costs and provide a stable supply to hospitals if there were such a pandemic. Everyone thought this was a good idea but was unwilling to commit the organization.
As fall arrived, so did some isolated flu cases. We reviewed policies and made more serious preparations. Almost overnight, we went from a few cases to high schools being closed. The news media pounded a steady drumbeat of H1N1 stories. Special procedures were developed for all hospital visitors, especially for those visiting patients with flu-like symptoms.
Then came word that a shortage of disposable masks might be developing. Masks are the essential front-line tool in protecting healthcare workers and others. This caused the infection-control and purchasing departments to panic about other essential items such as isolation gowns. Suddenly, the proposal to start a reusable-isolation-gown program took on a new urgency.
It was the best of times and the worst of times to consider starting such a program. It was the best because the panic caused by the flu lowered the normal resistance. While cost savings are nice, the allure of a secure gown supply was even more important. It was also the worst because demand for reusable isolation gowns was beginning to peak and availability was somewhat limited.
We were prepared to handle this new item because other laundries I’d managed had successfully processed them. I knew the possible pitfalls and how best to deliver the gowns to end-users. My management team was confident that we could quickly gear up and process the thousands of gowns that would be used every day.
The wonderful thing about a crisis is that it presents the chance to accomplish something you had failed to do before. It created the opportunity for the laundry to prove it can effectively process and handle reusable barrier linen. Once the laundry proves that it can effectively handle this item, then processing reusable surgical gowns, wrappers and drapes becomes a real possibility.
Of course, the flip side is that if the laundry fails to meet the needs of the system, or to deliver a quality gown, the opportunity to keep this new business or to add other business will be lost for a long time. Memories of service problems rarely grow dim over time.
When I worked in Memphis, one of the hospitals I serviced had a blanket shortage one Christmas Day. The administrator of a 175-bed hospital who was on call quickly let me know that he wasn’t happy and that this problem needed to be fixed immediately. We corrected the shortage quickly, and I thought our response and close attention to the hospital’s needs over the next several weeks helped to make the incident a distant memory.
I was surprised when, in early December the following year, my phone rang and it was the same administrator. He asked if we were going to run short on blankets again. I assured him it wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t. Still, he made a point to call me every December.
Being a manager is all about handling the risks associated with opportunities that present themselves to your laundry. You may have experienced a similar scenario and had the chance to rise to the challenge, ignore it, or fail. Do you remember how things turned out?
 

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at efrederick@carilion.com.

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