Health IT efforts must be proactive in the face of disaster

For years, public safety officials have talked about the need for robust communications networks that enable relief efforts during natural disasters and emergencies. After Hurricane Katrina caused widespread cell phone outages in 2005, the FCC attempted to require wireless carriers to install backup batteries at all of their network sites. Shamefully, the wireless industry used its considerable resources to threaten a legal fight and the Bush administration backed down in another example of the government allowing private interests (i.e., profit motive) to trump the public's interests.

While the major carriers say it is in their own best interest to bolster their networks and make sure they are operational in emergencies, apparently this "self-interest" is not enough for them to take concrete steps to provide backup power for their cell towers. According to the FCC, 25 percent of the cell towers in Sandy's path did not operate.

These kinds of cell phone outages not only deprive residents in hard-hit areas from communicating with family and friends, but also with emergency first responders including public health and hospital personnel who may not be on the scene yet are essential to supporting effective response and recovery operations. Nevertheless, even if cell phones worked during Hurricane Sandy, there were no guarantees that someone at a hospital would actually be available to take these calls.

In New York City, NYU Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate all 215 patients to nearby hospitals after a transformer explosion cut power to Lower Manhattan and back-up generators failed.  In addition, New York City's Bellevue Hospital Center had to evacuate hundreds of patients after the failure of fuel pumps for its back-up power generators.

Moreover, some hospitals were unable to access their electronic health record systems because of power outages that affected data centers or other buildings where patient data were stored. Staten Island University Hospital, for example, relied on paper-based medical records when power to the building where its data center is located was shut down due to flooding.

Ironically, it was Hurricane Katrina that first drove home the need for digital health records as a result of the loss of paper-based records from widespread flooding in that natural disaster. For its part, Hurricane Sandy is a serious reminder to hospitals and health systems of having electronic medical records and access to a healthcare information exchange, as well as reliable backup systems and contingency planning in the event of a failure.

Public and private institutions must take proactive, not reactive, measures to ensure continuity of operations in the event of natural disasters. The bottom line is that lives are at stake. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy happened before and they will no doubt happen again. Hopefully, the next time our nation faces such a crisis our wireless networks and health IT systems will be ready. - Greg