Still not pre­pared

Health­care sys­tem has made ma­jor gains in dis­as­ter readi­ness in decade since 9/11, but ex­perts cite sig­nif­i­cant short­com­ings

Modern Healthcare - - Special Report -

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.

AP PHOTO

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.

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