Researchers say the outbreak of the H1N1 flu provided a rare opportunity to evaluate the performance of state and local health departments during an actual emergency.
"We found that the capability to conduct basic crisis and emergency risk communication is quite good at the state level, but there remains significant variation at the local level," said Jeanne Ringel, lead author of the report and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "We concluded that there is room for improvement at all levels, particularly in the area of providing information in languages other than English."
Since 2001 federal, state and local governments across the United States have invested heavily in preparing for public health emergencies and measuring how well the nation is prepared. RAND researchers examined health agencies' use of Web-based communications directed to the public because crisis and emergency risk communication is one of the central components of emergency response.
While 46 of 50 state health departments posted some information about the outbreak within 24 hours of the federal announcement, the performance of local health departments was inconsistent. Just one-third of the 153 local health departments studied posted information to their Web sites within 24 hours of the announcement.
A majority of the state health departments posted content judged to be high in quality, according to the study. Most state departments (43 out of 47) provided information about how individuals could protect themselves or their family, although fewer provided information about when to seek treatment (36 out of 47) or who should take antiviral drugs (27 out of 47).
In addition, 30 states provided information for healthcare providers. Slightly more than half posted a news release and nine states provided information in languages other than English. Spanish is particularly important because the virus emerged in Mexico and much of the initial discussion in the media was about border and immigration issues.
MEDICA.de; Source: RAND Corporation