Cracking down on data blocking and expanding analytics tools can improve future disaster response efforts

Rescue workers traverse floodwaters
Health IT helped providers respond to patient care needs in the wake of Harvey, but more can be done to leverage analytics and improve access to EHRs. (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Health IT is significantly more advanced now than it was in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, ruining paper-based patient records and leaving vulnerable patients without access to essential information.

Those advancements, inducing widespread adoption of EHRs following the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, have improved disaster response, former national coordinator for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo wrote in Health Affairs Blog. DeSalvo and co-author Christine Petrin, a student at Tulane University School of Medicine, noted that hospitals in Texas were able to transfer critical patient information through health information exchanges.

“Providers now have the ability to access digital information in ways we only dreamed about during Katrina,” they wrote.

RELATED: In Texas, Hurricane Harvey response efforts provide a ‘defining moment’ for telehealth

However, there are still several critical obstacles impeding further advancements in emergency response, particularly for vulnerable populations. Cracking down on data-blocking is one way to ensure patients have access to their medical record before a natural disaster strikes.   

“Consumers will be best served if they have their health information with them to inform care and evacuation decisions before, during, and after disasters,” the authors wrote. “The infrastructure is in place for this vision to be a reality, but behavior in the health system is preventing technology from helping people when they need it most.”

Expanding analytics tools like emPOWER, created by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2013, is another imperative. By analyzing claims data, the tool was able to accurately identify individuals using home oxygen and ventilators.

Although HHS has scaled the tool, DeSalvo and Petrin ague the program needs to be expanded to other high-risk populations and incorporated into training exercises across the country.

Other digital health tools can offer new lines of support following a natural disaster. Telehealth companies offered their support to areas of Florida and Texas were ravaged by hurricanes. American Well’s medical director called the Harvey response a “defining moment” for telehealth, while others predicted that more providers will build virtual support into disaster plans.