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“Are We Ready?” Five Questions To Ask Your Hospital Before Disaster Strikes
Chlorine gas leaks after a train-car derailment. Radiation contaminates the community when an industrial accident occurs. A levy breaks, washing through every refinery and industrial plant and polluting all the water. Terrorists attack. Pandemic flu strikes.
When large numbers of people in your community are very sick, the last thing you want is for your hospital to be incapacitated as well. In America, any hospital or emergency room is considered a “first receiver.” That is, in the event of any kind of a healthcare disaster or mass casualty event, they would be the first to receive patients. Therefore, hospitals must be able to work as health care providers and, to some degree, as hazardous materials (hazmat) operators. But setting up hazmat operations can cost up to $2 million, training decontamination teams can cost up to $250,000 in the first year, and running the required disaster drills twice a year, every year, can run anywhere from $125,000 - $250,000. Federal funding for these efforts has been scarce. So most private institutions have been left with two choices: Paying for equipment and training out of pocket, or not doing anything.
For small and rural hospitals, spending this kind of money for disaster preparedness has been difficult. But poor hospital response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, and the specter of pandemic flu on the horizon in the next 3-6 years, lead the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JACHO) and the federal government to begin enforcing longstanding rules about disaster preparedness for hospital accreditation. These rules include twice yearly disaster drills and the ability to be a first receiver.
Additionally, communities have been receiving Homeland Security funds to use for training, drills and equipment purchase since 2002. And yet 2005 data shows that almost every community in the United States is no better prepared in 2005 than they were in 2000. Many don’t spend what they receive, or they purchase equipment that they aren’t trained to use properly. How do you know if your local hospital is up to snuff as a first-receiver facility? Every individual citizen needs to ask the following five questions of their community’s healthcare institutions:
Question #1: What has been done to prepare?
Question #2: Who’s grading the drills? If your local hospital is holding drills, who’s grading them?
Question #3: Does the ER door lock? And can people get past it without any difficulty?
Question #4: Who is being trained?
Question #5: What decontamination facilities are available?
What can you do?
• Every time you go to the hospital for something as simple as a blood test, you’ll get a satisfaction survey. At the bottom is a space to make a comment, so ask these questions every time you get such a survey.
• If your community’s media haven’t asked these questions of local healthcare administrators, then the public should be telling them to. Make phone calls to reporters at local papers and radio and television stations.
• Attend county commission and city government meetings on disaster planning and ask these questions. Almost every community now has at least one a year, if only to keep the Homeland Security dollars flowing.
• Every city, county, and state level of government has a website where you can ask these questions, as does every hospital. When you find the space where you’re asked what they can do to make things better for the community, this is the answer.
Ready or Not…Here We Come
Most hospitals now are private businesses, completely driven by public perception, and the opinion of the loudest voices wins. So one person speaking out can make a difference, and a group of people calling out can make a huge difference. If a hospital consultant makes a recommendation, a CEO is likely to say, “Sure, but you’re not the one paying for it.” But if 50 or 100 or 1,000 hospital customers make the statement, that CEO will listen or will risk not being CEO anymore. When informed citizens in every county, every parish, and every city ask “Are we ready?” first receivers will be compelled to do what it takes to get the equipment, the people, and the training to keep everyone safe in the event of a disaster.
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