CIO highlights health IT lessons learned from Boston bombings

Who would think that when your hospital's database administration team decides to volunteer as a group at a local event, such a gesture could put the facility at risk? That's just one of the lessons for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, CIO John Halamka (pictured), a FierceHealthIT Editorial Advisory Board member, said in a recent post to his Life as a Healthcare CIO blog.

Seven members of BIDMC's IT staff were working at the medical tent or finish line when the bombs exploded April 15, according to Halamka. They were unhurt, and were among the first to help those impacted by the blasts. However, risk planning in the future requires considering the potential ramifications of that, Halamka said.

Other considerations include situations such the citywide shutdown for five days, in which a large number of people needed remote access to the hospital's applications and networks. And what about situations in which staff could not enter the data center--or inversely, leave--for an unknown duration, Halamka wondered?

With the wide public attention focused on the bombing victims being treated at Beth Israel, the hospital reminded workers on its intranet about the importance of protecting patient privacy, including not divulging patient information on social media sites, though conversations or phone calls. The hospital routinely monitors who looks up patient information and whether that information is necessary for that staff member to do his or her job, but emergency situations might call for real-time alerts, Halamka said.

Halamka spoke to FierceHealthIT the day after the bombings, saying that bandwidth to accommodate the high demand for voice, email, social media and streaming video was key to the hospital's efforts.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Tufts Medical Center were among the hospitals that used Twitter to update the public on topics such as patient counts and suspicious activity--even as area hospitals were operating under lockdown. What's more, Children's Hospital Boston posted advice for talking to children after tragedies on its pediatric health blog.

Overall, the experience also illustrated how access to lifetime patient records could improve care for the blast victims, according to Halamka. In talking about the Massachusetts Healthcare Information Exchange, Halamka said that the bombings "illustrate[d] the importance of our second phase, now under construction, for secure retrieval of information based on a record locator service and a patient consent registry."

Added Halamka: "By the second quarter of 2014, we should have the infrastructure in place to support the kind of data exchanges that would have been helpful last week--a first-in-the-country kind of capability."

The tragedy also highlighted some potential holes in the push to lifetime patient records as FierceEMR's Marla Durben Hirsch pointed out. For instance, she said, what if healthcare providers falsely believe that they have all of a patient's relevant information?

To learn more:
- find the blog post