With Hurricane Florence threatening to wreak havoc on the East Coast this week, the devasting images from last year’s hurricane season come to mind: the flooded neighborhoods and boat rescues in Houston; the flattened homes and splintered boats across Florida and the Caribbean; the thousands dead in Puerto Rico.
Between hurricanes, massive fires, tornadoes, and floods, it seems the country is continuously tackling a never-ending plague of natural disasters – which recently had us wondering how prepared healthcare providers are to respond to the next big event that portends to disrupt the lives of large populations.
In August, DrFirst conducted a survey of healthcare providers to better understand how well-prepared organizations are to address future disasters. While many facilities have comprehensive plans in place, the overall results suggest that the healthcare industry still has a good deal of work to do to ensure that individuals get the care they need efficiently and effectively if they happen to be one of the millions of American who will face a natural disaster one day.
Consider these key findings:
- Almost 70 percent of the surveyed clinicians have been affected by more than two disasters in the last 5 years
- Just 51 percent of the respondents believe their organization’s disaster plan is comprehensive enough to cover a variety of disaster scenarios, both inside the organization and across the community.
- Among specialty care providers, the findings are even more dire with just 29 percent reporting to have a comprehensive disaster plan in place. Keep in mind that specialty care providers include cardiologists, endocrinologists, and other specialists who provide critical treatment to particularly vulnerable patients with chronic diseases.
The survey also revealed this key vulnerability: the widespread dependence on disaster communications methods that fail to meet legal requirements for secure communications between medical teams, pharmacies, and patients. Under HIPAA, a patient’s private health information can only be shared with the patient or other providers via secure methods such as password-protected portals and secure messaging.
One-third or more of healthcare clinicians surveyed across acute, ambulatory, and hospice/home health claim that calling by phone is their top communication method to reach pharmacies, EMS units, patients and families, local authorities and community health providers in crisis situations, followed by secure messaging and in some cases email. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the use of phones for the texting of patient health information is only permissible through a secure messaging platform that provides message encryption. Encryption is also required when emailing patient health information.
Backline to the rescue during a real-life crisis
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, it knocked out power across most of the island. Landlines and email servers were unavailable—and there was every sign that the island would remain without power for several days (as it turned out, it was many more months in much of the island). Google stepped up and deployed balloon cell towers, making cell phone service available. Unfortunately, the towers were quickly overwhelmed with voice calls. Texting via cell phones, however, was fairly reliable.
Once cell service became available, DrFirst began working with local partners to implement a community version of Backline, DrFirst’s secure communication platform. During the crisis, Puerto Rico named four hospitals to serve as primary medical hubs for health care, and each of the sites was equipped with Backline – with very positive results.
Backline has improved care coordination and transitions of care at these hospitals and has facilitated communication with other providers when conventional methods have been unavailable or unreliable. Because the recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria have been quite slow, the hospitals are still using Backline for secure communications.
Industry wake-up call demands action
One of the biggest take-aways from last year’s hurricane season is that natural disasters lead to surging demands for acute and emergency care, especially from the most vulnerable patients who may have been displaced from their homes without medications or critical medical supplies, such as oxygen or diabetic testing equipment. In our survey, 69 percent of the respondents consider a disaster recovery plan important for their organization, yet less than 50 percent feel confident that their EHR/EMR has sufficient information available to take care of all patients across their community.
While we can’t predict the impact and timing of future disasters, we can take measures today to address organizational readiness and eliminate critical gaps that impact patient care and safety. As evidenced by the implementation of Backline in Puerto Rico, secure communication tools facilitate communication and care coordination and should be an essential component of any disaster-readiness plan.
To learn more about how Backline can help your organization, please visit https://drfirst.com/challenges/care-coordination-collaboration/
To learn more about DrFirst’s Disaster Planning Survey, or to join in the conversation by taking the survey, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.