Modern technologies provide enormous benefits to the healthcare industry. These same innovations can lead to severe problems in the event of their failure. With healthcare data vastly growing, the potential risks also multiply.
While intentional attacks aimed at exploiting technological vulnerabilities received the most press – such as data thefts and other cybersecurity offenses – one of the most significant risks comes from nature’s random wrath.
Natural disasters wreak havoc on systems in our ever-connected modern world. From communication to daily operations, many industries are highly dependent on network connectivity. The internet powers email, collaboration software and, increasingly, storage, enterprise applications and other mission-critical solutions.
What happens if the plug is pulled? Natural disasters, such as hurricanes threaten many industries all over the world, especially the healthcare system in America.
Hurricanes’ threats to connectivity and patient care
Even after bouts with severe storms in the modern internet age, the U.S. healthcare system is still perennially ill-prepared for hurricane season. In 2017, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria left $265 billion in damages in their wakes, causing outages that affected hospitals and other healthcare providers.
This massive damage figure eclipsed the staggering $210 billion toll of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma from 2005. Over a period of 12 years, one would hope that a move to a more resilient infrastructure would follow these examples of nature’s ferocious power.
Today, as cloud computing and big data have risen to prominence in the healthcare IT management, healthcare providers are seeking a reliable, natural disaster-resistant backbone. Some of the manners in which healthcare is trying to shore up defenses are through improved communication and stronger partnerships with first responders.
Also, hospitals should consider enhancing their infrastructure to ensure they give proper care to patients during natural disasters.
Grim lessons learned from natural disasters
Some of the recent natural disasters provide a playbook for how not to handle a worst-case scenario. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina resulted in the loss of more than 1,800 lives. In and near hospitals and nursing homes, over 200 dead were found.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was unprepared when Hurricane Irma struck. Although there were satellite phones to hospitals, these did not always work and were hard to use. During 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, hospital records became separated from their respective patients.
This information disconnection made many patients untraceable by their families. Another problem experienced during Sandy was the massive power outage across New York City and surrounding areas.
New York University’s Langone Hospital lost power, which resulted in over a billion dollars in financial loss. NYU’s example shows how lack of preparedness can cost a healthcare provider. Hospitals and other healthcare providers are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters.
Emergency preparedness is the only way to minimize the loss of life and financial costs.
The state of hospital emergency preparedness
In response to the catastrophic problems experienced during and after hurricanes over the past two decades, the federal government created the Emergency Preparedness Rule. Like many federal regulations affecting healthcare providers, the government uses a carrot and stick approach to encouraging compliances.
In order to participate in Medicare and Medicaid – sources of billions in insurance billings for providers – hospitals are required to create and maintain emergency preparedness plans. Emergency preparedness plans start simple, but since even small hospitals can be labyrinths of patient rooms, recordkeeping areas and staff locations, these plans quickly become complicated.
To be practical and usable, they must be written in easy-to-understand language and be familiar to staff. Familiarity requires training, which takes medical personnel away from a hospital’s primary functions of providing care and maintaining fiscal viability.
This is not intended to characterize healthcare providers as profit-driven, but if a hospital is not financially able to work as an entity, it will fail to exist.
Most doctors believe they are unprepared
Some hiccups are apparent though, as merely having an emergency preparedness plan is much different than maintaining and implementing one. In fact, according to a survey by the American College of Emergency Physicians, up to 93 percent of interviewed doctors stated that their emergency departments are not adequately prepared.
Some hospitals have emergency preparedness plans but fail to maintain them according to changes in information, staff structure and technology. Without a system to manage and maintain a program, it can become a useless document.
Further, although the Emergency Preparedness Rule has been established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, some hospitals are still lacking emergency plans.
Why some providers are not fully embracing emergency plans
Plans are costly, detract from the direct providing of care and require a great deal of management and organization. Some of the existing issues faced by medical institutions include:
1. Emergency department readiness.
- Some emergency departments are ill-prepared for routine operations, let alone the chaos that follows a natural disaster. Shortages in critical medicine and supplies threaten urgent care in many hospitals across the country.
- An emergency exacerbates the impact of emergency department unpreparedness. During a hurricane, for example, not only is an emergency department potentially dealing with power losses, but it is also the first department to feel an increase in patients.
2. Access to real-time data regarding available healthcare resources.
- Not only must communication be facilitated among hospitals, emergency responders and be streamlined and improved, providers should also have more responsive access to information.
- Healthcare records management platforms and emergency response data tracking can provide real-time information. Both hospitals and government should strive to improve access. In past emergencies, coordinated efforts were hindered by the lack of real-time data.
- Technology allows companies worldwide to track inventory, customer behavior and countless other non-emergent pieces of information. This technology should be applied to emergency preparedness scenarios and situations.
3. Lack of or incomplete disaster preparedness plan.
- Medicaid and Medicare program rules now incentivize disaster plan compliance. While these rules hit providers in the pocketbook, and therefore should, in theory, be quite effective, some providers still have not adopted plans.
- Government regulators may have to look at additional ways to encourage compliance, such as stepped-up inspections, reporting requirements and fines. There is a possibility that some hospitals will forgo participation in government insurance programs if their cost-benefit analysis of compliance favors noncompliance.
4. Need for infrastructure improvements.
- As systems age, they become less effective. This is especially evident in hospital infrastructure. Medical providers are often on the cutting edge of treatment and diagnosis technology, but not so with crucial emergency management.
5. Drug shortages.
- As is the case with emergency medicine, hospitals overall experience shortages in critical drugs. In an emergency situation, no plan of action can be successful if providers are ill-equipped. Routing patients between hospitals in emergencies can be utterly ineffectual if the receiving provider lacks the required medicine.
- Solving this problem requires top-down action from government regulators. The Food and Drug Administration should work with lawmakers, hospital groups and individual healthcare providers to ensure that needed supplies and medicines are available during emergencies.
How the healthcare industry can become ready
In addition to complying with the Emergency Preparedness Rule by creating comprehensive emergency plans, there are several operational and technological preparedness solutions for the healthcare industry.
Many of these solutions may seem like bitter pills to swallow for hospital administration, who must balance providing care with financial viability. However, since they combat a recurring problem that directly affects an organization’s ability to deliver and coordinate care, these are investments in the future.
1. Start with appropriate staffing levels.
- Medical institutions need to adjust staffing levels to accommodate patients. Emergency preparedness may need an investment in employees and a reshuffling of priorities.
- There are training costs and, in the case of suggested annual generator testing protocols, additional expenses related to operations and staffing for tests. An emergency plan is just a pile of papers if no one in the staff effectuates the plan.
2. Optimize communication routes.
- There should be constant communication between the hospital, staff and incident command centers. Under a regionalized approach, providers should forge strong partnerships with first responders and state personnel from other cities, as well as relationships between regional and interstate providers.
- Under such a scenario, local hospitals would have actionable information on the number of beds and the operational status of other hospitals during an event. Emergency response personnel can more efficiently route patients, and hospitals can assist each other when needed.
- Communication and intelligence problems do not solely apply to hospitals. Relief agencies, such as FEMA, also share a need for improving knowledge and communication with local and regional providers.
3. Hospitals should fortify technology.
- During past hurricanes, satellite telephone was underutilized to the detriment of hospitals and patients. Technology has advanced to allow satellite connectivity on levels unheard of before. Satellite can also provide a strong backup solution for hospitals along with newer power generator applications.
- X2nSat has been providing satellite internet for over 20 years. Its SatBlue product is specifically designed for the unique needs of healthcare. Not only does X2nSat provide data and voice connectivity solutions, but it also works closely with healthcare providers to create effective disaster preparedness plans.
Satellite is the missing puzzle piece for reliable communication and data connectivity during worst-case scenarios.