RWJF report: Nation’s public health emergency preparedness improving, but slowly

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The U.S. is more prepared for a public health emergency now than it was in years past, but improvement has been slow, according to a new report.

The healthcare industry is making strides in emergency preparedness, though progress is slow, according to a new report.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released its fourth National Health Security Preparedness Index today, which assesses how prepared the country is to handle a public health emergency, and rated the industry nationwide at a 6.8 out of 10.

But progress has been incremental each year since the first index in 2013, Glen Mays, Ph.D., professor of health services and systems research at the University of Kentucky School of Public Health and who leads the index’s research team, told FierceHealthcare. Mays said the nationwide index has only improved by about 1.5 percentage points this year.

“If we really want to get to a strong level of health protection, we’re moving very slowly in terms of progress,” he said.

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The researchers also found significant disparities between the states where providers and other stakeholders are most prepared for an emergency situation. In this year’s index, there is a 32% difference between state ranked highest (Vermont, at 7.8 out of 10) and the state ranked lowest (Alaska, at 5.9). Mays said that states in the Deep South and Mountain States overall tend to lag behind in emergency preparedness.

Some of this, he said, can be linked to the patient populations in those regions, which trend more poor and rural. It can be harder for providers in sparsely populated and low-income regions to develop comprehensive emergency preparedness plans, he said.

“Having large rural areas can really create challenges for states in maintaining high levels of health security,” Mays said.

The index includes more than 130 measures to analyze emergency preparedness, including the number of paramedics and hospitals, flu vaccination rates and emergency planning in schools. Mays said that particular strides have been made in community outreach and engagement about emergency planning and improved surveillance in healthcare, but there’s still work to be done in the healthcare delivery and environmental disaster preparedness spheres.

He said planning for a potential environmental disaster, in particular, will be a key area for future improvement.

The key for providers to more prepared for an emergency is collaboration and conversation, Mays said. It’s important that providers and other stakeholders build strong relationships so that they can work together should a large-scale emergency occur.