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Hospital Wants AIDS Tests for Doctors

January 21, 1992

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) _ Treating celebrities who take a spill on the ski slopes is Aspen Valley Hospital’s usual claim to the limelight. But its new policy of requiring AIDS tests of employees has put it at the forefront of a national debate.

The hospital said it is trying to bolster public confidence with the move, which takes effect in March, but criticism is growing. Opponents of mandatory AIDS tests for health workers have prevailed elsewhere across the country.

The medical staff at the hospital, which serves 50,000 people in this Rocky Mountain resort and surrounding tourist towns during peak skiing season, unanimously agreed in December to annual AIDS tests for its health care workers, including 25 staff doctors.

The requirement would extend to 70 non-staff doctors who use the hospital, as well as those among its 180 staff employees involved in so-called invasive procedures.

Aspen Valley would be one of the nation’s first hospitals to adopt such a policy.

″We want to be able to say to a patient, ’This medical staff is aware of your concern and we’ve been tested and will go along with CDC guidelines,‴ said Dr. John Freeman, president of the medical staff. ″To practice safe sex, safe surgery, safe whatever, you’ve got to know what you are.″

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends doctors and dentists be tested voluntarily. The American Medical Association opposes mandatory testing but suggests AIDS tests for doctors who perform invasive procedures.

The Colorado Health Department opposes mandatory AIDS testing for health workers.

″We are a highly orthopedically-driven hospital just because we are a ski resort, and orthopedics does have a risk with invasive procedures,″ explained the hospital’s administrator, Hans Wilk.

″Also, we are a transient community. We have tourists from all over the nation, if not the world, and as a result of that a physician here does not have a history - in physical terms - of a patient.″

But Freeman conceded that modifications may be needed.

″There’s a lot happening that we didn’t think would happen,″ said.

In an editorial, The Denver Post slammed mandatory AIDS testing as expensive and unnecessary and said it ″merely feeds the AIDS hysteria stirred up by the Kimberly Bergalis case.″

″Aspen might be able to afford such extravagance, but the rest of the state and nation can’t,″ it said.

The CDC has identified just five cases of patients contracting the AIDS virus from a health care worker - all by the same dentist in Florida who infected Miss Bergalis. Before her death Dec. 8 at age 23, she campaigned for mandatory testing of health professionals.

The CDC has estimated the odds of an AIDS-infected surgeon giving the disease to a patient during surgery at 1 in 41,667 to 1 in 416,667.

Aspen city officials fear protests during Gay Ski Week, which is expected to draw about 2,500 people Jan. 26 through Feb. 1.

″Don’t do this,″ pleaded Ann Northrop, a member of the radical gay-rights group ACT UP. ″We’ve seen this strategy and it doesn’t work ... and we object.″

She said no protests are planned, but the group has conducted two ″phone zaps″ to the hospital - blitzing hospital officials with complaints about the policy.

The hospital’s administrators and board of directors have backed the plan but emphasized there is no set policy yet. A task force has been set up to consider rules.

While no employees have complained of the plan, there may be some who refuse to take the test, said board president Walter Ganz.

″How it will be implemented is really the key to the thing. And whether, in fact, it can be implemented,″ he said. ″I’m not sure they realized all the implications and complications that may arise.″

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