Physicians and Clinicians Should Be Required to Get Flu Shots: Ethicist

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


February 23, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, where I'm the director.

It's flu season, yet again. For many parts of the country, we're already in the thick of it, and for other places, we're going to have flu outbreaks continuing and intensifying. I've long believed that every healthcare institution — nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, home care, hospice — should require flu shots for all doctors and all nurses because it is the easiest, cheapest, and most ethical way to protect the workforce from flu, who you need to be in there when flu outbreaks take place, and to protect patients against getting the flu when they come in to hospital settings and get exposed to healthcare workers who may have the flu already but don't know it.

In a recent Medscape poll, I was happy to see that the majority of physicians surveyed agreed with me: 65% said they supported mandatory flu vaccination in hospitals and only 23% said they did not. I think flu vaccination is something that has already been shown to be useful and important, not only in stopping people from getting the flu but also in making sure that they don't get as sick when they get the flu.

Just like COVID-19 vaccination, it doesn't always prevent somebody from getting infected, but if you get it, it keeps you from winding up sick at home, or worse — from dying and winding up in the morgue. Flu kills many, many people every year. We don't want that to happen. A flu vaccine will really help prevent deaths, help prevent the number of symptoms that somebody gets, and will get people back to work. The benefits are pretty clear.

Does the flu vaccine work equally well every year? It does not. Some years, the strains that are picked for the vaccine don't match the ones that circulate, and we don't get as much protection as we hoped for. I think the safety side is so strong that it's worth making the investment and the effort to promote mandatory flu vaccination.

Can you opt out on religious grounds? Well, some hospitals permit that at NYU. You have to go before a committee and make a case that your exemption on religious grounds is based on an authentic set of beliefs that are deeply held, and not just something you thought up the day before flu vaccine requirements went into effect.

There may be room for some exemptions — obviously, for health reasons. If people think that the flu vaccine is dangerous to them and can get a physician to agree and sign off that they are not appropriate to vaccinate, okay.

On the other hand, if you're working with an especially vulnerable population — newborns, people who are immunosuppressed — then I think you've got to be vaccinated and you shouldn't be working around people who are at huge risk of getting the flu if you refuse to be vaccinated or, for that matter, can't be vaccinated.

Would I extend these mandates? Yes, I would. I'd extend them to COVID-19 vaccination and to measles vaccination. I think physicians and nurses should be good role models. They should get vaccinated. We know that the best available evidence says that vaccination for infectious disease is safe. It is really the best thing we can do to combat a variety of diseases such as the flu and COVID-19.

It seems to me that, in addition, the data that are out there in terms of risks from flu and COVID-19 — deaths in places like nursing homes — are overwhelming about the importance of trying to get staff vaccinated so they don't bring flu into an institutionalized population. This is similar for prison health and many other settings where people are kept close together and staff may move from place to place, rotating from institution to institution, spreading infectious disease.

I'm going to go with the Medscape poll. Let's keep pushing for healthcare workers to do the right thing and to be good role models. Let's get everybody a flu vaccination. Let's extend it to a COVID-19 vaccination and its boosters.

Let's try to show the nation that healthcare is going to be guided by good science, a duty to one's own health, and a duty to one's patients. It shouldn't be political. It should be based on what works best for the interests of healthcare providers and those they care for.

I'm Art Caplan at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

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