After Boston: Disaster response in the age of smartphones

Watching the horrific images of the bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon last week, like many, I sat transfixed on my television screen and more than anything was struck by the heroism and kindness of humanity. In the immediate aftermath of the twin explosions--despite the dangerous debris that flew through the air and the shock of what was happening--countless people ran not away from the bomb blasts, but towards them to help the victims.

Ordinary citizens and medical professionals alike stepped up in the face of adversity to tend to the wounded, using their hands to apply pressure and making makeshift tourniquets from their own shirts and belts to stop the bleeding. 

In the aftermath of this heinous act of terrorism, three people died and more than 280 were injured, many of whom suffered from lower extremity injuries. Tragically, more than a dozen of the bombing victims required amputations. Thankfully, because there was so many medical staff and first responders already onsite at the marathon and due to the fact that victims were quickly brought to nearby Boston hospitals, many deaths and further complications were prevented.

This is a testimony to the fast-acting care that was administered at the scene, in transit to the hospitals, and in emergency departments and operating rooms across Boston. The key to managing large incidents is communication between hospital departments, as well as obtaining reliable information about the number and severity of patients that will come in, Dr. Selim Suner, director of disaster medicine and emergency preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rhode Island Hospital, told FierceHealthcare last week in an interview.

It was the first major terrorist attack on American soil in the age of smartphones. And, there's no doubt that doctors, nurses, first responders and paramedics treating the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings had the benefit of wireless technology that was not available in the Oklahoma City bombing or even on 9/11. What we're talking about in the intervening years is the technological difference between cell phones and smartphones, when a mobile device has the potential to become a life-saving medical device.

"In a disaster as devastating as what transpired this week at the Boston Marathon, health information technologies and mobile devices can play a critical role in the timely transmission of vital data and long term patient care and monitoring," Chuck Parker, executive director of Continua Health Alliance, told Healthcare IT News. "As we have seen in other disaster response efforts, end-to-end, plug-and-play interoperability of personal connected health devices and systems has helped to save lives, valuable time and money."

There's no denying that we live in an age of smartphones and constant wireless connectivity. And, the Boston Marathon was in no shortage of mobile devices at the time of the terrorist incident. Thousands of people on hand were armed with smartphones and in a position as witnesses of the event to provide tips, photos and videos to law enforcement investigating the bombings.

I'm sure in the weeks and months that follow, there will be many after-action reviews of Boston hospital procedures, emergency medical services and the lessons learned that will be shared for future crisis planning. However, one thing is certain. The tragedy proved the importance of mobile technology for real-time response to such a disaster. - Greg (@Slabodkin)