For hospitals, disaster planning must be about achieving normalcy

When it comes to disaster preparation, practice might not necessarily make perfect, but it does help in maintaining a sense of control amid chaos. From a health IT perspective, in particular, preparation in the form of electronic health records went a long way toward ensuring that for citizens impacted by the tornado that hit Moore, Okla., last week, an interruption in care was the last thing on their minds.

"We're very fortunate that we're a little ahead of the game," John Meharg, director of health information technology at Norman Regional Health System, told Kaiser Health News. Norman is the parent company of Moore Medical Center, which was destroyed in the storm. According to Meharg, the transfer of patient information from one facility to another was "totally seamless" thanks to health IT.

"The system never missed a beat," he said. "It would really have been a mess if we weren't electronic."

For hospitals throughout the state, such preparation is commonplace, according to FierceHealthIT Editorial Advisory Board member Roger Neal, CIO of Duncan (Okla.) Regional Hospital, which is roughly 90 minutes south of Moore.

According to Neal, Duncan--like Moore Medical--uses health information exchange technology. His hospital constantly evaluates its data location and needs, just in case, he told me in an e-mail.

"Duncan has offsite disaster recovery, so our systems would be back online within 24 hours anywhere the hospital could be propped up," he said.

What's more, according to Neal, Duncan has invested in other technologies for disaster prep, as well. For instance, he said, the hospital has four satellite phones, as well as several backup cell phones and wireless cards. It also boasts a dual buried fiber network that extends around the campus, and recently started a $1 million backup generator project that provides emergency power to the campus, as necessary.

"Our main goal is to keep the lights and power going when no one else can," he said.

Neal raises a very good point, particularly in light of that fact that budget cuts are leaving some states ill-suited to respond to public health emergencies such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks and bioterrorism attacks. From Boston to New York to Oklahoma, disaster preparation must be a priority.

"We know we have to be here," Neal added. "No matter what … we have to make sure we drill, drill, drill and have plans and equipment in place to be as prepared as we can be. In a situation like this, the best laid plans often go by the wayside." - Dan @FierceHealthIT