Health information exchanges prepare for patient displacement as Hurricane Michael gains steam

State HIEs surrounding Florida were making preparations for evacuations due to Hurricane Michael. (NOAA)

As Hurricane Michael touched down on the Florida panhandle on Wednesday, health information exchanges (HIEs) in the surrounding states were readying their emergency plans to allow clinicians to access medical records for displaced patients.

HIEs have carved out an increasingly important role in disaster response in preparation for when hospitals are evacuating patients to surrounding states and residents fleeing their homes seek medical care in surrounding regions.

Recent storms, including Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma in Puerto Rico and Florence in North Carolina, have helped HIEs refine their approach. In the days ahead of Michael, HIEs in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma were coordinating a response to the storm. Thanks to prior partnerships, most of those states easily activated existing data exchange infrastructures in the days leading up to the storm. 

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“The only one we weren’t really working with was Alabama,” said Tara Cramer, executive director of the Georgia Regional Academic Community Health Information Exchange (GRAChIE). “We started working on that this morning, and we should have that completed by end of the day.”

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GRAChIE is relying on vendors in the two states—Cerner and InterSystems—to quickly build out the infrastructure. The data exchange won’t be perfect, Cramer said, but it will give clinicians some of the basic data they need during and after the storm.

“HIEs are always a great way to introduce a doctor to a patient he’s never met before,” she added.

The Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative (SHIEC) led coordination efforts in the buildup to the storm. That includes daily calls to identify existing connections, parse through technical needs and provide outreach where needed from emergency preparedness agencies and providers. SHIEC also provides reports to federal and state agencies to point out any important trends.

“We have found HIEs to be vitally valuable for those patients who are electricity dependent and need support for chronic conditions such as dialysis,” said SHIEC CEO Kelly Thompson.

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Their prior work is gaining traction. Increasingly, HIEs are being integrated into hospital emergency response plans, according to Cramer. And the impact that the organizations have had in previous hurricanes is helping them refine future response efforts. 

“I feel like the use case of HIEs in the time of a disaster has become something the nation is looking at,” Cramer said.