Still not prepared
Healthcare system has made major gains in disaster readiness in decade since 9/11, but experts cite significant shortcomings
The country’s healthcare system has made significant strides in its preparedness for hurricanes, acts of terror and other disasters since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nonetheless, hospitals and other providers are not as ready as they should be for large-scale emergencies, experts say.
Though hospitals and public health administrators have greatly improved in their planning and preparations for dealing with a disaster in the decade since Sept. 11, there are still some areas that need enhancement, especially in communication between hospitals and public health departments, in the management of personnel during a crisis, and in ensuring there is enough hospital surge capacity.
Since Sept. 11, healthcare organizations have developed a better understanding of systems of response, are better equipped to deal with disasters than they were before the attacks, and have a broader awareness top-to-bottom of what to do during a crisis.
Healthcare providers, federal organizations such as Homeland Security Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, and state officials got an early thumbs-up for their preparations last month in anticipation of Hurricane Irene and their response in May to the tornado that destroyed a large section of Joplin, Mo., including one of the city’s two hospitals. But experts warn that there are definite areas needing improvement and dwindling funds to pay for that improvement.
“Are we better off? Undoubtedly. Are we where we need to be? Not even close,” says Donald Donahue, director of the health policy and preparedness program at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va. The country has yet to be tested in needing to care for a large number of patients in a short amount of time, and the system would likely fail that test, Donahue says. “If there was truly a huge influx of patients, we would be trembling,” he says.
The mood in Congress is decidedly different than it was in the years immediately after Sept. 11. As the nation collectively rushed to respond to the lessons learned in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, where hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and into a field in southwestern Pennsylvania, a slew of money was directed to emergency preparedness.
Ambulances navigate the smoke and debris after the collapse of the twin towers at the World Trade Center. Disaster preparedness experts cite gains and setbacks since Sept. 11.