Ever wonder how hospitals would handle an infectious disease outbreak? Many of them have plans in place, but how do we know they will work?

Professor Shelly Miller from the University of Colorado Boulder set out to answer this question with a team of researchers nearly three years ago.

"We wanted to come up with a cost-effective, easy to implement way to handle a surge capacity in the case of an infectious disease outbreak," Miller said.

Miller mentions that there are three different ways to deal with an outbreak of airborne diseases:

  1. Purchase a large shelter or tent for those who are infected - but they are expensive and hard to implement.
  2. Turn another building (like a gymnasium) into a make-shift hospital -- but they may not have the infrastructure to handle disease.
  3. Convert an already existing wing of a hospital into a controlled environment -- but many hospitals do not know how to do this.

The third option is where Miller's team focused their efforts.

Over the course of a week, engineers worked with the ventilation system in a hospital in the San Francisco bay area to make the pressure inside of the ward negative compared to that outside of the ward.

"It's kind of like when you're on an airplane and you're flying," Miller said, "the outdoor environment is at a negative pressure compared to the pressurized cabin, you can't open the door, it's to keep everybody safe in the aircraft.

Photo by Dr. Nicolas Clements

Researchers collected data over the course of 24 hours and found that the plan worked perfectly. They were able to keep the ward entirely isolated from the rest of the hospital even with people coming and going.

"We had lots of visitors coming to see patients, so we wanted to show that it could be done while the ward was operating normally," Miller said.

Photo by Dr. Nicolas Clements

Miller wanted to make sure that smaller hospitals in rural communities could pull this off, not just the ones in big, metropolitan areas.

"I think that most hospitals could look at the work we did and the plan and say 'we could do this' and could do it pretty quickly," Miller said.

Both cost effective and easy to implement, Professor Shelly Miller and her team came up with an idea that may soon serve as a plan for many hospitals in the case of an airborne disease outbreak.