9/11 anniversary draws questions on hospital preparedness

As the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches this weekend, a new report suggests that the U.S. may not be any more prepared against bioterrorism than a decade ago. Budget cuts leave holes in staffing, which could prove disastrous, especially if there be a disease outbreak, such as anthrax, according to a report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In September and October 2001, letters laced with anthrax were mailed to Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and to media outlets in New York City and Boca Raton in Florida, which resulted in 22 people contracting anthrax, five of whom died. Thirty-one people tested positive for exposure, while another 10,000 were reported at risk for exposure, according to the report.

"These issues are so scary that the public assumes the functions [needed to respond to them] are being maintained," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, in American Medical News. "It's almost hard to contemplate that they're not. But the reality is we've been falling down on the job [in investing in public health]."

A major concern is the healthcare work force shortage and whether current staffing can handle such a bioterrorism incident or another event like Sept. 11. There are 50,000 fewer public health workers than two decades ago, and one in three will be eligible to retire within five years, according to the report.

However, hospital preparedness has made progress since 9/11, according to Mark Lambdin, director of emergency management at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in New Jersey. Today, nearly all hospitals have comprehensive emergency operations plans and increased coordination among various teams, he wrote in a Times of Trenton column.

"Ten years ago, a typical disaster drill at a hospital was rarely more complex than a standard fire drill. Today, disaster exercises incorporate extensive collaboration with first responders, including law-enforcement agencies, fire departments, hazmat teams, and emergency medical services (EMS) crews," Lambdin wrote.

With administrative support, hospitals' improved emergency preparedness--especially with advances in telehealth and even social media--has changed in the past 10 years.

"Over the past decade, we learned a lot of hard lessons about what it means to be adequately prepared for diseases, disasters and bioterrorism. We've made smart, strategic investments, and there's been a lot of progress to show for it," states the report. "...The top lesson we learn and relearn in each tragedy and emergency is that being prepared means we must sustain enough resources and vigilance so we can prevent what we can and respond when we have to."

For more information:
- read the amednews article
- check out the report (.pdf)
- read the Times of Trenton column

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