Technology could better prepare health professionals for disasters

Social media and other electronic tools could be of vital use to health professionals during catastrophic disasters such as widespread disease outbreaks, hurricanes and earthquakes, particularly since the current disaster infrastructure remains "rudimentary at best," according to a new report released this week from the Institute of Medicine.

The report's authors recommend that hospitals and other healthcare organizations have alternate care systems in place that use "minimal resources via electronic means." They point out that patient assessments and prescribing conducted online and over the telephone were especially helpful in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic, and that social media also can be utilized in such cases.

The latter already has been proven effective in identifying existing pandemics, a study published earlier this year that focused on Twitter use during a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti determined. What's more, another study found that use of Google Flu Trends can serve as a good warning system for emergency departments fearful of overcrowing.

"When a truly catastrophic event occurs, the nation's health system will be under enormous stress," committee chair Lawrence O. Gostin, associate dean of the Georgetown University Law Center, said in an announcement. "Health professionals can bring the best care to the most people by using a systems approach that involves thoughtful coordination among all stakeholders and good planning and coordination among all levels of government."

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services sees the same potential for social media, as evidenced by its latest contest, announced this week, regarding Twitter use and real-time tracking of health trends. In late 2010, the Government Accountability Office wagged its finger at HHS for not having developed a strategic plan to evaluate and start an electronic information network for use during a catastrophic public health event or disaster.

An online disease surveillance system tested during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver will be used for actual risk assessment during the Summer Olympic Games this year in London.

To learn more:
- here's the prepublication copy of the IOM's report
- check out the accompanying announcement
- read the report at a glance

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