Weathering Hurricane Isaac: health care lessons learned from Katrina

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | September 11, 2012

Community planning and drilling have also become an "integral part" of its emergency preparedness program. Yarbrough said the health system drills several times a year, and also shares emergency equipment inventory counts with local partners so the region is appropriately stocked.

Document recovery

But one less well-known casualty of natural disasters is often patients' private health information. Sometimes personal health records can be destroyed, or patients' privacy compromised in rather dramatic ways. When a deadly tornado struck the town of Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, for instance, it badly damaged a local hospital, which resulted in the scattering of protected health information. Winds carried patients' X-rays some 70 miles away, where they were found by residents in a neighboring county.

Under Isaac, Ochsner didn't lose any records. But it didn't lose any in Katrina, either, or any other hurricane, Yarbrough said. That's because Ochsner has been using an electronic medical records system for the past decade. The hospital also said it has backups kept out of state to be preserved in a worst-case scenario, an often recommended "business continuity" protection measure.

Storing digital backups of records off site will become increasingly common, especially as more hospitals embrace EMRs. This adoption will be partly driven by, for instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' recently released stage 2 meaningful use rules that require eligible hospitals to provide at least 5 percent of patients with electronic access to their health records. "It's a step in the right direction," Dooling said.

But Dooling said many hospitals are still in what she called a "hybrid stage" of record-keeping, using both paper and electronic health records, or are scanning backlogs of paper and uploading them to document management systems that then integrate them with the EHR.

For them, she said, it's important to have certain measures in place before a storm hits, such as developing the right vendor relationships. For example, hospitals with extensive paper records might want to have a cleaning company, which specializes in record retrieval, mold elimination and freeze drying, on hand to help with recovery efforts.

"If they haven't formed those vendor relationships, they should do it now," she said.

This advice doesn't only apply to hospitals and clinics operating in the hurricane-prone Gulf, or in the tornado-stricken Midwest. She said that document loss isn't always caused by headline-grabbing natural disasters. Instead, it's often brought about by "internal disasters," such as flooding in a hospital building or other mishap.

You Must Be Logged In To Post A Comment