When disaster strikes, will the U.S. healthcare community be ready?

News reports from Japan have been tragic and heartbreaking in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami disasters. The tension has been made even more overwhelming by the sudden threat of radiation leaks and a nuclear meltdown. And while these events are thousands of miles away, they are no doubt embedding themselves into the conscience of the U.S. healthcare community. Can we readily respond to similar massive disasters on our own soil? 

And more specifically, has the U.S. healthcare industry learned from such disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on how we can improve and enhance the delivery of care wherever it is needed? If you look closely, the answer is 'sort of yes' and 'sort of no.' 

While the country still has a ways to go, progress at least has been made in getting more patient information away from paper records to electronic health records. When events like floods or fires occur, the records are stored safely offsite where they hopefully can be easily accessed. 

But a look at preparedness at the federal level sees a few shortcomings. The Government Accountability Office criticized the Department of Health and Human Services in December for not developing or delivering--as required by Congress in 2006--a strategic plan to start an electronic information network to be used if a catastrophic public health event or disaster occurred. 

But the federal government has provided assistance in other areas. At the end of last year, for instance, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) released its own guidebook and pocket guide to help hospitals plan, conduct and evaluate exercises to prepare for emergencies. 

And in some other welcomed news, the Obama Administration announced this week that it was supporting the report from the National Commission on Children and Disasters that calls for a national strategy to protect children before, during and after disasters. The report calls, for example, for training first responders in basic psychological first aid for children. 

But other areas--especially those that address major radiation emergencies--showed inadequacies. At least 70 percent of surveyed state public health departments fail to have engaged in meaningful planning and preparation for nuclear emergencies, according to a study released online this week in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. 

True, a majority of states have a written radiation response plan, but many states have conducted little or no planning for public health surveillance to assess a major radiation emergency's effect on human health. "The nation remains poorly prepared to respond adequately to a major radiation emergency incident," the researchers concluded. 

Overall, the events in Japan this past week serve as a very sober reminder of how fragile life can be. But it also serves as a reminder--a tragic wake-up call to the U.S.--that more work needs to be done soon to prepare for disasters. - Janice