Is Your Health Care Organization Prepared for a Disaster?

By CTU Faculty

With the recent wildfires in Colorado and across the country still fresh in our minds and in light of the latest destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern portion of the United States, we are ever more aware of the power and unpredictability of natural disasters. As our nation begins to heal and process this recent tragedy, our faculty leaders will offer their insights on disaster preparedness.

CTU Healthcare Degree - Healthcare Disaster PreparednessHurricane Sandy and most recently a nor’easter winter storm wreaked havoc on the north-eastern portion of our country. In the face of such disastrous events we are reminded of the critical importance of preparation.  Health care organizations often play a vital role during and after catastrophes. Are you and your staff prepared to handle a disaster situation? Below are a few important factors to consider as you develop an emergency preparedness plan.

Organization is Key
Preparing for disasters, natural and other, require that health care organizations document and practice the steps they will take.  The most important piece of disaster preparedness is making sure the patients are properly taken care of including their diagnosis, treatment, and follow up.  In order for this to happen, health care organizations must have a method of entering the patient into the “system” so the procedures and care process can begin. During disaster scenarios, typical procedures such as looking up patients in the master index will not be possible, especially if the individual comes in unconscious.  Instead, a numbering system can be used as a temporary measure to get the patient entered.  The patient access and financial services personnel will be able to follow up once crisis has subsided.

All Hands on Deck
Staffing needs will increase during a disaster.  A properly prepared health care organization should have access to a backup or reserve medical and administrative staff network. The credentialing committee can implement a policy for temporary privileges during emergency or disaster situations. The intensity of the patient care activities during this time may be much more similar to an emergency department than on a typical patient care floor. Consequently health care organizations should provide additional advance training to prepare personnel. 

Key staff members, usually directors or mid-high level managers, will be assigned specific tasks during disaster situations.  Their primary responsibility is to keep the process flowing as smoothly as possible, handle press requests, keep the patients and family members as calm as possible, and meet the needs of the customers.  Disasters can bring out both the best and the worst in people.  The best is when others lend a hand to help with the situation and take care of their neighbor.  The worst is the panic that seems to overcome many people leading to an irrational behavior. This is where training can help mitigate the chaotic atmosphere.

Prepare, Plan, Practice, Repeat
Advanced planning and practice is necessary so that if a situation arises the staff is prepared for it.  In my previous experience at a medium-sized hospital, we practiced drills for disaster preparedness similar to the practice for fire and tornado drills.  Going through the motions in advance allows the personnel to encounter problems could occur during a real disaster and allows for further refinement of the processes. 

Executive leadership should consider allocating funds in advance for additional resources during disasters.  The reality is, in many cases, the daily operations for patient care and patient billing usually win out over the budget requests for emergencies.  Disaster planning should also include situations where the health care facility itself is the victim of a disaster rather than the place where the victims can come for treatment and refuge.

There are broad, national preparedness requirements set forth by the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health care Organizations (JCAHO) to consider as you develop your plan. The Office of Emergency Preparedness of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a vast database of resources available for preparedness and disaster response planning as well as the American Hospital Association.

What other preparedness activities should a health care organization consider when developing their response plan?

Image credit: Flickr/Camil Tulcan