HIE critical to care continuity in natural disasters

As some hospitals in the New York metropolitan area were forced to evacuate patients and send them to nearby facilities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, health information exchange proved to be a vital tool in making those transitions as smooth as possible.

David Whitlinger, executive director of the New York eHealth Collaborative, the organization that oversees the Statewide Health Information Network of New York (SHIN-NY), told Healthcare IT News this week that hospitals accepting such patients have been able to maintain continuity of care without having to do what he called "anything boots-on-the-street explicit."

"It's a matter of people utilizing the services--where they might not have had access to information, they now do, as long as they can get an Internet connection," Whitlinger said. "That's the power of the virtual network."

While unsure about the SHIN-NY participation status of all of the hospitals impacted by Sandy, Whitlinger said that for those facilities on the network, the process was made quite simple. He also said that just prior to Sandy, emergency teams discussed a scenario involving hospitals sending their patients to neighboring facilities.

"With the state network, we get an electronic message from the electronic health record systems of every hospital where they admit someone," he said. "So we could very quickly tell, if somebody is looking for somebody, where they were admitted."

Lee Stevens, policy director of state health information exchange programs at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, told Healthcare Info Security that the processes for thinking about HIE technology for emergency management really started coming into play after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I think we saw that we were really at a point where health information exchange and health information technology were now available to support the transfer of patient data electronically," Stevens said. "It really became a priority … recognizing the vulnerability of citizens to really do that as quickly as possible."

Stevens added that continuing to expand health information exchange to different states, as well as eventually allowing the exchange of health data across state lines, is more about working through policy concerns than technical issues.

"This is very much an issue of aligning state privacy and security laws," Stevens said. "I do think that every disaster we experience teaches us new lessons and ways to do things better. I think we'll learn in the coming days and weeks what other aspects we need to consider."

To learn more:
- read the Healthcare IT News interview
- listen to the Healthcare Info Security interview

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