Not an 'if' but a 'when': Emergency preparedness lessons from COVID-19

September 28, 2020
John Davanzo
By John Davanzo

Most healthcare facilities have emergency plans in place for crises they themselves or others have experienced. Examples of these events can range from natural disasters to a security breach. But, when COVID-19 began to sweep the globe, many health systems did not have plans in place for defining roles or adjusting supply chains to meet such an unprecedented situation. Many in the scientific community cautioned that a pandemic of this nature was possible (if not likely) in our lifetime, so why were we not better prepared?

We’ve learned the hard way that pandemics are not an “if,” but a “when.” No matter where a health system is in managing COVID-19, it is not too soon to examine what policies, procedures, care delivery models, and communication tactics could have been improved during the various stages of the pandemic so far. While many are yearning for a return to “normalcy,” the battle against the virus wages on, and its impact on patient care, operations and planning will linger for some time to come. We have an opportunity to reflect and strategically plan for the ebb and flow of this virus and to prepare for future pandemics while memories are fresh.

The pandemic exposes issues facing healthcare organization preparedness
Beyond occasionally running a drill to comply with regulatory requirements, many healthcare organizations struggle to practice and test the efficacy of their emergency management (EM) plans and update accordingly. Given today’s high-pressure healthcare environment and competing daily operational priorities, it is easy to understand how the maintenance of these plans might fall lower on the priority list. Unfortunately, this limited practice and reassessment of EM plans contributed to our lack of preparedness and the ability of COVID-19 to quickly overwhelm operations. For example, hospitals and agencies that do not traditionally collaborate needed to lean on each other for a crisis of this magnitude. However, many struggled to identify appropriate community partners at the start of COVID-19, leaving them to scramble for support.

This pandemic taught us that there is no “one size fits all” EM plan – each needs to be tailored to the hospital’s specific needs and aligned with evolving operations and priorities. Defining one’s “all hazards approach” should become an integrated part of everyday work, and these plans should serve as living guidelines that are proactively and routinely put to the test in different mock-crisis scenarios.

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