How healthcare tech can assist during a natural disaster

Hurricane season. Wildfires. Heat waves. Flooding. Tornadoes. 

Disasters can happen throughout the year, but for many of the above, the likelihood of these disasters occurring increases as we head into summer. That precious lead time each year — the so-called calm before the storm — can give individuals and organizations alike valuable time to prepare. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers tips for individuals to prepare for hurricane season during the COVID-19 pandemic. From knowing local evacuation routes to gathering supplies and making an emergency plan, there are important steps every individual or family can take to contribute to their own safety during a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire.

But what about health systems and hospitals in affected areas? What precautions should they be taking, what measure should already be in place? And what technology might they employ to ensure that their patients and community can receive the best care possible in the unfortunate situation that a natural disaster occurs in the midst of a global pandemic?

Facing compound extreme events

A compound extreme event is one where two or more extreme events (like a wildfire and a heat wave or, in the case of 2020, COVID-19 and any of the above-named disasters) occur simultaneously. Jane W. Baldwin, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory postdoctoral fellow, emphasized the seriousness of these situations in a recent National Academies webinarasking “What do we do with all the patients in hospitals in a disaster zone, particularly if they are hooked up to life-saving respiratory equipment?”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, strategizing like this must take into account things like mask-wearing and social distancing, for example. Evacuation and treatment are crucial puzzles hospitals and health systems must solve when preparing for natural disasters in the time of COVID-19, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But there are ways that healthcare technology might be able to assist during these compound extreme events, chiefly by educating, informing, and monitoring.

Educating patients

Since natural disasters and pandemics are, by definition, out of the ordinary, there’s an element of education that goes along with disaster preparation or response.

In an inpatient setting, this might mean using patient engagement software to provide a direct link to public health information and guidelines such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) sites, or to FEMA’s site in the case of a natural disaster.

The sharing of authoritative information goes a long way towards reassuring patients who are hospitalized and concerned, whether about their condition, the COVID-19 threat or an emergent natural disaster. It shows that there is a central source of information and trust, and that guidelines are being followed, putting patients at ease. And with the right patient engagement software, administrators can customize the content that patients view.

Informing communities

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1-November 30 annually. This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NOAA has predicted an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, and the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States have already faced down four named storms — Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly — all in the month of June.

Predictable disasters like hurricanes and heat waves are no less destructive than their unexpected counterparts, but give organizations and providers time to plan. Hospitals and health systems who have the capability often take advantage of this time to initiate system-wide emergency messaging and alerts.

Emergency messaging, which can be customized as desired, has multiple benefits:
1. Getting a unified message out to a disparate population
2. Reaching all patients at once without delay
3. Emphasizing specifics relevant to a local community or health system

Like the inpatient education above, centralized, customized messaging in times of distress can go a long way towards putting patient’s fears at ease. It shows authority and, in a sense, extended caretaking, and organizations can rest assured that the same message is getting out to everyone that needs to hear it.

Monitoring care

In mid-May, two Michigan dams failed in rapid succession during record rainfall, causing extreme flooding and a mass evacuation of thousands of local residents. The Washington Post reports that wildfire season is colliding with a spike in coronavirus cases.

During unexpected disasters — flooding, tornadoes, wildfires and more — patients are often displaced from their homes or other locations.

Remote patient monitoring and digital care management software allow care to travel with these patients, ensuring that there is no lapse in care and that providers can stay connected with patients wherever they are.

By moving patient monitoring out of the hospital setting, there is less disruption when a natural disaster or compound extreme event hits. It also alleviates the burden on health systems that might otherwise require in-person or inpatient visits but can now safely monitor patients from afar.

The bottom line

Healthcare technology is pushing the bounds of innovation in many arenas, but it has a role to play in the preparation and recovery of compound extreme events, as well.

By educating, informing, and monitoring a patient population using patient engagement technology, health systems can be assured that their patients are better prepared, more knowledgeable and remain in contact with their providers. And that’s valuable whether or not there is an active crisis.