Mixed signals on healthcare disaster preparedness

When a disaster strikes, occupational health and safety professionals deployed in healthcare organizations often are what stands between a bad outcome and a good one for victims.

In addition to taking care of communities and individuals, professionals in healthcare are charged with protecting their own ranks – a large task given their propensity to disregard personal protective measures in order to care for others, particularly in a crisis situation.

Considerable planning around public health-related disaster preparedness goes on behind the scenes. Consequently, disasters are averted, and when catastrophes occur, there is a calculated response.

However, no matter how ready healthcare professionals think they are to cope with a natural or man-made disaster, they usually are surprised by the magnitude of the event and wish they had been better prepared. Despite repeated warnings and recurring experience, people in general seem to have a hard time with calculating risks and allocating appropriate resources to address them.

To provide insights on this conundrum, we have assembled a panel of experts to help you understand the role of healthcare in disaster preparedness and assess how your organization measures up during a free webinar on Jan. 24 from noon to 1 p.m. Central time. The topic also will be explored in depth in the upcoming edition of Tracker, our online quarterly journal.

In doing research for Tracker, I learned that funding for healthcare preparedness has declined considerably since a post-Sept. 11, 2001, infusion of support. Today, healthcare organization executives and board members must weigh potential consequences associated with not investing in preparedness (e.g., loss of life and injury, property damage, productivity loss, disrupted business continuity, liability concerns) against many other competing priorities.

Add to this the human tendency to discount the magnitude of threats (complacency) and short-term memory – mother nature’s way of helping people who suffer loss – and you have a super-storm brewing.

Many believe the answer is improved collaboration among healthcare organizations, and in turn, healthcare organization collaboration with local, state and federal authorities; non-governmental organizations; the private sector; and civilian volunteer networks.

In a November 2012 Research Brief on Emergency Preparedness and Community Coalitions: Opportunities and Challenges, the Center for Studying Health System Change notes that “providers and policy makers increasingly have recognized the value of collaboration through community-based preparedness initiatives to minimize the amount of redundant capacity each provider must maintain.”

Once we truly accept that we are all in this together, we have a much better chance of overcoming the resource constraints that impede preparedness efforts. Stakeholders who know each other and understand their respective roles are much better equipped to respond when the inevitable occurs.

With funding sources expected to be redirected to coalitions, healthcare institutions are advised to re-evaluate their role and contributions to the whole. Outside experts also say hospitals and health systems must learn to speak the language of preparedness with them in order to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way.

This is an opportunity for us to do better with expecting the unexpected.

UL gives workforce health and safety professionals more of the tools they need to proactively address risks, reduce costs and keep people safe, healthy and on the job.