October 1, 2007 - In the event of another major natural disaster like hurricanes Katrina or Rita, a repeat of 2005's medical catastrophes and loss of life is very unlikely, according to a new multistate survey by Global Secure, a provider of emergency preparedness and response systems to federal, state and local governments.
Seventy-seven percent of the state public health departments in disaster-prone regions across the country questioned for the survey said they were "significantly" or "somewhat better" prepared to meet such emergencies.
The most important initiatives taken by a large majority of the respondents involved sweeping improvements in communications, collaboration, and coordination between all intra and interstate rescue agencies. A failure in these efforts two years ago was one of the biggest obstacles to dealing rapidly and effectively with Hurricane Katrina, whether providing medical support, handling evacuees, or allocating resources and time.
"We are significantly better prepared because of the redundant communication capabilities we now have in place," said LaJean Volmer of the South Dakota Department of Health.
Of equal importance, the survey found, was the need for collaborative planning in advance. Seventy-six percent of the respondents agreed that one of the most valuable lessons learned through direct experience, and through watching the New Orleans crisis unfold, was the over-riding importance of advance planning.
"What really is key is understanding that planning in isolation does not produce a quality product," said Cindy Gleason of the Washington State Department of Health Office of Risk and Emergency Management. "Planning with other agencies puts you in a better readiness state, rather than just an awareness state."
Those preparations must involve cooperation among hospitals, nursing homes, and all other healthcare facilities, as well as the coordination of food and water supplies and the assignment of trained volunteers. Nearly 60 percent of the state health departments surveyed said that they were now implementing regular exercises and drills that were critical for their first responders. Also cited often was the need for strong leadership from a supportive overall director and management team.
One of the state health department heads who responded to the survey said he was now conducting multi-agency exercises that included the rapid setting up of so-called all-purpose medical needs facilities. Another noted that prior to these exercises, multiple agencies, acting independently, wasted valuable time and money duplicating efforts. He noted that in a number of instances, for example, various responders had all counted on the same buses for evacuations.
A third official emphasized the necessity of hospitals participating in these preparatory exercises and suggested that, in future, some nontraditional players, such as a finance team to determine funding requirements, also be included.
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