Hospitals across the country are feeling under pressure to contain and treat Ebola. Many, including the one I lead – Boston’s Brigham and Women’s –  should prepare. But the expectation that every hospital in the country should mobilize for the possibility of a patient with Ebola is not practical or feasible. It is a mistake the cost of which will be measured in the lives and wellbeing of patients and healthcare providers, as well as hospital resources.

Instead, the federal government should mandate and fund a series of regional containment centers with the expertise and capacity to treat patients and prevent further contagion. Rather than being isolated and treated at any hospital at which they happen to present, patients with Ebola would be evacuated to such centers at strategic locations around the nation. There are only four of these centers today—not enough, either in capacity or geographic distribution, to handle a serious outbreak. The government needs to act on this, and do so quickly.

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The alternative is that every hospital in the U.S. – some 5,000 – becomes a level BL4 facility capable of treating Ebola patients and containing outbreaks. The reality is that they simply cannot, and should not try to. Hospitals have all manner of life-saving medicine to practice from which full-bore preparation to treat Ebola would drain resources. In this era of cost cutting, most hospitals are not awash with resources. Every dollar they spend purchasing equipment and training staff for the distant possibility of an Ebola occurrence is one they must take from impending certainties like influenza outbreaks.

For their own sake as well, patients infected with Ebola need to be treated at centers with the full expertise to handle their cases. Thus far, those who have been handled at such institutions have fared far better than those cared for at the hospitals where they happened first to present.

Hospitals must still develop protocols for what to do if patients with symptoms of Ebola present. But medical centers should not be forced to choose between ensuring its staff has enough protective equipment suitable for hot zones and making sure it can afford supplies for routine surgeries and stocks of flu vaccines. 

It is, of course, a costly proposition to evacuate every patient with Ebola to a regional center. But it will prove far costlier not to. 

The reality is that many hospitals will be not able to bear the unreasonable and unrealistic cost of a full Ebola treatment plan. In the process of trying to prepare, many will be forced to make tradeoffs—both dollars and health—that will put patients at risk. Medical needs that are more present will be foregone. There is also a real chance that patients will put off treatment out of fear. For example, a patient scheduled for important surgery called Brigham and Women’s three times last Friday to say she would not come in for her procedure until she was assured of our Ebola containment plan. While she was trying to protect her health – putting off her surgery would have imperiled it. Having a clear and well-publicized network of regional containment centers will help provide reassurance so that people continue to get the care they need.

The intent of such changes in priorities is to save patients’ lives. It is far better for the government to establish facilities with the expertise and capacity to treat and contain Ebola—so other hospitals can continue to deliver the vital medical care on which lives also depend. Only swift government action can do this. The federal government needs to act without delay.

Nabel has served as president of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital (BWFH) since 2010. A cardiologist and distinguished biomedical researcher, she is professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Prior to joining Brigham and Women’s, Nabel served as director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute from 2005-2009.