ATLANTA — A roomful of reporters and TV cameras tracked every word that Emory physicians said at a Friday news conference preceding the arrival of two Americans stricken with Ebola.
After their high-profile trip to Atlanta, the two patients' treatment in a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital has brought unprecedented media attention to the medical facility.
The net effect for Emory is an immediate increase in prestige and visibility, health care experts told Georgia Health News on Wednesday.
"It's a huge boost in prestige for Emory,'' said Craig Savage, a health-care consultant with Durham, N.C.-based CMBC Advisors. The hospital shows through the Ebola cases "the ability to care for the sickest of the sick," Savage said.
Emory has long had a strong reputation in health-care circles, though Savage said it generally has not been listed in the highly exclusive top tier of U.S. academic medical centers, as have Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic.
Yet the recent days of intense news coverage — in which TV helicopters tracked the patients' ambulances and networks interrupted regular programming to show their arrivals at the hospital — reached ordinary people around the world who might not previously have even heard of Emory.
The two patients being treated at Emory University Hospital are Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, medical missionaries who contracted Ebola in West Africa. Emory is one of four U.S. institutions with a specialized isolation unit for people with serious infectious diseases.
Brantly and Writebol have been given the experimental drug ZMapp, which had not previously been tested on humans and is yet to undergo any clinical trials.
The Emory isolation unit is housed in a discrete area of the hospital where there are no other patients. The two missionaries are the first people infected with Ebola to be treated at a U.S. institution.
The virus, first identified in 1976, is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids or blood. It's transmitted in the same manner as HIV or hepatitis C, two diseases whose spread can be controlled with the proper measures.
In the current outbreak, the fatality rate has been about 60 percent, and the death toll in West Africa now has surpassed 930.
Emory has been low-key about discussing the two patients, not giving scheduled updates on how they are doing because of patient confidentiality. But university spokeswoman Holly Korschun said Wednesday that the level of news media interest in the Ebola story is unprecedented for Emory.
Korschun said there has been no disruption in the normal patient flow in Emory University Hospital while the Ebola cases have been treated.
Since last week, though, there has been some negative public reaction to the arrival of the two Ebola patients in Atlanta.
Though any possible outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. would almost certainly not originate in a medical isolation unit, the two patients at Emory have become the face of the disease as many Americans have heard scary reports about it.
In the short term, Emory has to deal with public misconceptions about increased infection risk here in Georgia, said Chris Kane, an Atlanta-based health care consultant.
"The challenge is educating the public," he said. Due to patient confidentiality concerns, Kane added, "it's not as though Emory can go on TV and show the isolation unit.''
Emory's Korschun said the Ebola situation "has allowed us to educate people about this virus and about infection control in general."
In the long run, Kane said, Emory gains credibility in providing extremely specialized care. Emory Healthcare may gain from a "halo effect,'' he added, with the perception that "if they can handle Ebola, they can handle brain or heart surgery.''
Savage compared the fears around Ebola to those surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
Emory "has the opportunity to educate," he said, "that you can't get Ebola without exchanging fluids,'' or that the virus isn't "running around the halls'' of the hospital.
If one of the two patients does not survive, Emory "may still get the benefit of the doubt," Savage said. "I give Emory a lot of credit. They have the compassion to take care of these two people."
Showing medical community's coordination
The transporting of the patients from Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County to Emory shows the medical community can work together on cases like this, said Dave Smith of Kearny Street Consulting in Alpharetta.
Through this experience, Smith added, "people will realize that Emory is a hidden jewel in Georgia and Atlanta.''
Jana Thomas, a marketing expert with Porter Novelli in Atlanta, said the Ebola case "absolutely boosts the credibility of the work and the role Emory can play on a global level.''
The reputation for health care in Atlanta and Georgia is being enhanced as well, experts say.
"For our community, it fortifies the fact that we have incredible depth and talent here in Georgia,'' said Russ Lipari, the head of a local corporate development, government affairs and strategic advisory firm.
Lipari cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Task Force for Global Health, the American Cancer Society and the Carter Center (which is involved in public health as well as other international issues) among the prominent health organizations based in Atlanta. Lipari is organizing a Sept. 15 conference, Health Connect South, which will provide what he hopes to be a platform for collaboration among such health organizations in Georgia.
The Emory care of the Ebola patients, Lipari said, "is yet another example of the world-class health assets that reside in our state."