2007 SUMMIT COVERAGE: Business recognition of pandemic threat said to be rising

Feb 5, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Orlando, FL – Corporate America is showing signs of a growing recognition of the threat of an influenza pandemic, but the concern is not yet a major topic in executive suites, according to recent surveys by a business consultant.

Speaking at a conference on business preparedness, Michael Evangelides, MBA, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, said business executives, especially those in human resources, are reporting a growing awareness of and preparation for the pandemic threat.

However, he said, "One thing that comes out loud and clear is that corporate pandemic preparedness is simply not a CEO or COO [chief executive or chief operating officer] or board-of-directors level topic."

He spoke this morning at "Business Preparedness for Pandemic Influenza: Second National Summit," sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), publisher of CIDRAP News.

Evangelides, leader of a pandemic preparedness team at Deloitte, said he recently surveyed human resources executives from about 150 companies, risk executives from 20, and financial executives from about 50. All were Fortune 1,000 companies.

The human resource officers in particular reported increased recognition of the pandemic threat and were relatively optimistic about their companies' preparations, he said.

Seventy-three percent of them said their companies perceive pandemic flu as a real threat, versus 57% in a similar survey last year. Further, 68% said their firms were very concerned about pandemic flu, compared with 43% a year ago.

More than half of the human resource execs, 52%, said their companies had adequate plans to protect themselves, up from only 14% last year, and 45% said the companies were confident of their ability to manage a pandemic, versus 18% a year ago, Evangelides stated.

"From a human resource perspective, the trend is positive," he said.

The risk executives recognized the threat but were much less confident about companies' ability to handle it. Sixty-nine percent said a pandemic is "fairly or highly likely" to occur in the next decade, according to Evangelides. Three quarters (74%) said human resources at their firm would be very or severely affected, and 87% said they were only "somewhat prepared" to handle the effects.

Further, 53% of the risk execs believed their supply chain would be "very or severely affected," and only 10% saw themselves as well prepared to cope with supply-chain effects.

Finance executives were somewhat less apt to take pandemic concerns seriously. Evangelides reported. Fifty-one percent regarded a pandemic as a real threat, 33% saw preparedness as a top priority, and 21% thought their company was adequately prepared.

Twelve percent of finance officers were aware of their critical suppliers' preparedness plans, and only 6% were confident that suppliers would continue to supply them during a pandemic. Also, 29% said pandemic preparation was a concern of senior management, while 64% believed it should be a concern.

Summing up, Evangelides said, "I call the human resources execs optimists. I call the risk execs pessimists. And I call the financial officers outsiders; they're really not that involved."

Assessing the overall level of corporate preparedness, he said, "Most companies have a pandemic plan that consists of some kind of communication strategy . . . that could be of some use in a pandemic." However, "For the most part companies are not prepared to operate in the midst of a pandemic."

"I really believe that pandemic preparedness needs to be a CEO/COO-level item," he added. But he predicted that it will take one or more of several eventualities to make that happen: increased media attention to the threat, legislaton or regulation requiring a high level of preparedness, shareholder or investor concern, or greater understanding by senior managers of the potential financial impacts.

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