Live Operators Can Help Stop an Outbreak of Infectious Disease

By Matthew Harwood

Public health departments that staff live operators around -the-clock better meet federal guidelines designed to stop the spread of infectious diseases, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Researchers called a national sample of local health departments to report an urgent infectious disease case and found that nearly one-third connected callers to a public health professional within 30 minutes as suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings appear in the February edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

“This study shows that local health departments can indeed achieve consistent and timely responses to urgent case reports,” said David J. Dausey, lead author of the report and an associate policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “The fact that many departments were unable to respond in a consistent and timely way also demonstrates that there is room for continued improvement.”

As Dausey acknowledges, the overall results of the study were less than stellar. On average, it took callers 63 minutes to speak with a trained public health professional, with the longest wait time clocking in at 16 hours, 43 minutes.

And while 31 percent of public health departments met CDC standards, 40 percent of health departments "had one or more cases where researchers never reached a trained public health professional."

Worse, if the study was conducted again today, performance would likely decline further. Since the study's completion, the CDC stiffened its standard from a recommended 30 minutes to 15 minutes from the time an infectious disease call comes in to the moment that caller speaks with a public health professional.

Aside from reaching a live operator, two other important ways to ensure a public health department meets federal guidelines, according to RAND, include well-trained telephone operators and a formal system for answering calls.

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