Flu shots good investments for employers, employees

Monday, December 18, 2006
Ouch! A flu shot may sting for a second, but it could behoove companies to start providing them. More than half of those who get flu shots don't come down with influenza.

Investing in their employees' good heath will keep businesses' bottom line healthy.

Spokesmen for both Saint Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital confirm that offering flu shots at a business site not only keeps the workforce healthy, but cuts down on sick days and keeps productivity up.

Employees who work afternoon or evening shifts may not always be able to go to their personal physician or to the health department to get a flu shot. Having the vaccine delivered on site makes it convenient for the employees and economical for the business. Both hospitals have corporate health departments that will provide the flu vaccines for businesses.

"Some companies offer it as a benefit," said Marilyn Welch, assistant manager for occupational medicine at Saint Francis Medical Center. Others offer vaccines at a reduced cost. Getting the vaccine on site saves the employee the cost of an office visit, even if the company does charge a nominal fee.

"It's a win/win situation for employer and employee," Welsh said. "It helps build immunity in the event other family members get the flu. The vaccine helps them stay well. It keeps them at work and that helps productivity and the bottom line."

Studies show that employees who get the yearly flu vaccine are healthier and thus more productive. Faith True, an infection control specialist at Southeast Hospital, says that according to a study in the "New England Journal of Medicine," working adults who get a flu shot have 25 percent fewer upper respiratory infections, make 44 percent fewer doctor visits and take 43 percent fewer sick days.

"That saves for each and every individual, $47 annually," she said.

In a three-year study of 25,000 adults, True said, of those who got flu shots, between 48 and 57 percent had reduced instances of hospitalization for pneumonia, 27-39 percent had reduced acute and chronic respiratory conditions of any cause, and the instances of death for any reason were reduced by 39 to 52 percent. That results in a savings of $117 per person, over the $47 per year.

"The vaccine protects against heart disease to some extent," True said. "There's 50 percent less of a chance of dying from heart disease or stroke if you get the vaccine."

Influenza is the sixth leading cause of death among adults in the United States, True said. Each year, 36,000 people die from influenza, and between 100,000 and 200,000 are hospitalized each year for treatment of influenza.

"More people die from the flu than from any other vaccine?preventable disease," True said.

Participation among employees of companies who offer the vaccines isn't always high. Welsh said that among the companies who offer the vaccines through Saint Francis, maybe half will take advantage of them.

"That's because there are a lot of myths out there, like you get the flu from the vaccine," Welsh said. "It's made from a dead virus. If you get sick after you get the shot then something was on board already."

Other people mistakenly believe that a flu shot is supposed to protect them against intestinal viruses often prevalent in the winter.

"That's not actually flu," Welsh said. "The vaccine will keep you from getting upper-respiratory, achy, high-fever, hang on for two or three weeks and you can be hospitalized flu."

True said that health care employees, who should know better, are often dismissive about the vaccine, resulting in high absenteeism at a time when they're needed the most: when patients are hospitalized with influenza.

"Some hospitals had to divert because too many employees were ill with the flu," she said. "Friends of mine who run businesses tell me they can tell a huge difference in absenteeism" when employees are vaccinated.

"It's definitely cost-effective."

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