Flu shots won't be mandatory for health-care workers in Alberta

Health officials say rather than imposing mandatory flu vaccinations for health-care workers in Alberta this year, less heavy-handed tactics are being used to persuade them to roll up their sleeves.

Hospital units have immunization 'champions' appointed to spread the word

Family physician Dr. Muhammad Shahbaz plans to roll up his own sleeve for a flu shot next week. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Health officials say there are no plans to impose mandatory flu vaccinations on health-care workers in Alberta this year.

During the 2014 - 2015 flu season, 64 per cent of Alberta Health Services (AHS) employees were vaccinated, including everyone from frontline workers to administrative staff.

That number was up over the 2013 - 2014 flu season, when 60 per cent were immunized.

But the turnout is still well below the province's 80-per cent target rate for health-care staff.

And that has health officials in this province continuing to urge frontline workers to get the shot.

"It is critical that they get immunized," said Dr. Martin Lavoie, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

But Lavoie says at this point, mandating vaccinations isn't necessary.

"Yes, we know that these tools exist. At this point we're seeing an increase. And we have fairly good rates," he said.

"It's far from perfect. We need to push much higher. But we're slowly getting there. And we're trying to reach out of more and more of those health-care workers in different ways to get them motivated."

Softer approach 

Health officials are focusing on a less heavy-handed approach, appointing one staff member in each hospital unit to act as immunization "champions."

Their focus is to promote vaccination among their co-workers. AHS also tries to offer flu shot clinics right on hospital wards so staff members have easy access.

"We think we can get those rates up this year without that mandatory approach," said AHS Senior Medical Officer of Health Dr. Gerry Predy. 

"Just by emphasizing to our staff our expectation is that nobody will get influenza from them and they're there to protect their patients. And I think that message has resonated with them and I think we're seeing some good results." 

If the upward trend doesn't continue this year, officials say they can consider other steps that stop short of forcing all health-care workers to get the flu shot.

One of those options is to give workers the choice between getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.

At his northwest Calgary family practise, Dr. Muhammad Shahbaz encourages many of his patients to get the flu shot. And he plans to roll up his own sleeve next week.

"We are the primary line of defence," said Shahbaz.

"If a health worker become sick there's more chance they're going to spread it to the other people, especially if you have patients in the waiting room where their immunity is low. They're vulnerable to get sick. They will easily catch it."

But influenza immunization wasn't always a personal priority for the family physician who started getting the flu shot just a few years ago.

"I was among those guys that say, 'I'm going to fight it myself.' Until I got it. And then I know how bad it is." 

Shahbaz says he, like many other physicians, hadn't been thinking about his own health.

But after hearing reminders from health officials and colleagues, Shahbaz started making a yearly flu shot part of his routine and he now sees it as an important way to protect himself and his patients.

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