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Special report: Planning for the unlikely

by Carol Ko, Staff Writer | August 28, 2013
From the August 2013 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

Such logistical planning requires that hospitals not only have good internal communication, but also good communication with other facilities.

“Health care coalitions started to be and continue to be a big issue for the coming years in hospital preparedness,” says Stevens. Coalitions enable hospitals to pool their resources and coordinate their contingency plans so their emergency response is more comprehensive—especially when it comes to business continuity planning.

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Encouragement is also coming from the federal level: the grant funding for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has become more and more focused on coalition-building, and this guidance is shaping the overall trend in the field. This July, HHS announced that it has awarded $332 million toward hospital preparedness, in part, to help health organizations work collaboratively to maximize resources and prevent duplicate efforts, focusing on what the agency calls “whole community” planning.

Rumor mills
Official internal communication played a large part in Mass General’s successful handling of the Boston Marathon emergency. According to Biddinger, the hospital had purchased an electronic notification system that with a push of a button can notify more than 100 personnel of an event that requires them to spring into action and execute a disaster plan.

Within nine minutes, leadership and specific departments were notified so people could find and prepare beds, mobilize blood banks, and round up teams of surgeons and respiratory therapists. “All of that happened with electronic communications systems we put in place in the last few years,” says Biddinger.

But unofficial channels of communication such as Twitter also played a significant role. “The information gleaned from those websites was helpful or sometimes even more helpful,” says Biddinger. He cites the example of one anesthesiologist in charge of the operating rooms who’d already heard through Twitter that there was an explosion. He quietly prepared the ORs sooner than the hospital would have had it waited for an official notification.

Even so, communication strategies can sometimes struggle to adapt to unexpected scenarios. For instance, during the Boston manhunt, when the entire city was under lockdown, communicating to staff and patients was at times a huge challenge. Part of it was due to the inherent fluctuations in the situation—advisories were changing and shifting every few minutes, and even updates filtering through official channels were often in conflict. To add to the nightmare, people were advised to stay put in their homes or at work.

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