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Healthcare challenges in the World Cup's host country

Posted Jun 10 2010 10:20am

by Christopher Cornue

I'm a huge fan of soccer (or non-American football) and this week kicks off the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

As I've been chatting with friends internationally and reading up on preparations, there has been interesting news about some of the challenges the host country is facing from a healthcare perspective. Apparently the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has very specific requirements of the host country and cities where the matches are played.

One guideline requires them to keep hospital wards half empty, which may force some hospitals to transfer longer term patients elsewhere during this period. Care for local patients during this World Cup playing time will be different for many reasons, let alone tourists. Already, local patients seeking specialty care have noticed a sharp decline in their ability to get referrals to specialists.

Local medical professionals have expressed concern that if a major medical emergency occurs during the World Cup (which is expected to draw more than 300,000 fans), the country's hospitals may not be able to handle it. "Hospital disaster plans are actually a disaster," one official told reporters back in April .

More recently, another local health official said that an emergency that results in more than 200 injured patients would be "a major challenge" for local hospitals.

To help address some of the potential infrastructure concerns, hospitals have been asked to not approve staff leave during this period. Pre-existing staff shortages (such as among nurses) will likely put additional pressure on the workforce already in place. At some hospitals, nurses are being asked to work double shifts on days when games will be played locally.

The medical leadership remains committed to ensure that healthcare is effectively delivered to both local residents and World Cup participants/fans during the event; however, it's clear that doing so will be a challenge for the public health system.

All of these preparations and challenges remind me of what we have established in American Hospitals for emergency preparedness that have repeatedly been tested over the past several years (most recently with the H1N1 epidemic). While I believe they have these plans in place as well in South Africa, I also believe they are impacted further by a "crumbling" public hospital infrastructure that has been widely reported upon. I guess this will be a good measure of their capabilities to test out their "emergency plans" and recognize the need to invest in their infrastructure further.

I look forward to watching not only the matches, but also how the host cities are able to respond to the healthcare needs of their communities and visitors in the next several weeks.

Christopher Cornue is principal for slainte global partners and is the former CEO at McKee Medical Center in Northern Colorado. He has also served as vice president at Mount Sinai Hospital and Health System in Chicago, and has held leadership roles at University Health System Consortium and the University of Chicago Hospitals.

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