Industry Voices—During natural disasters, HIEs on the front lines of addressing fragmentation in healthcare

Natural disasters like wildfires in California serve as a strong reminder of how complex and fragmented the healthcare system is, not only in times of disaster but also in everyday life. (Aarti Kalyani/Shutterstock)

In the middle of California’s fire season, it’s hard not to think about the role healthcare organizations can and must play when it comes to providing and coordinating care for patients during a natural disaster. These events will become more frequent and intense as the impacts of climate change increase.

Natural disasters like the fires emerging here in California serve as a strong reminder of how complex and fragmented our healthcare system is not only in times of disaster but in everyday life, too—especially for those who are most vulnerable.

These disasters shine a spotlight on the importance and value of being able to access patient records—including both clinical and claims data—in real time. And these disasters highlight the role health information exchanges (HIEs) can and must play in connecting all facets of care, from first responders to clinicians to patients and families in search of their loved ones.

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Getting patient data into the hands of first responders

In 2018, 6.7 million acres of land in California burned in unplanned wildfires. Areas like Paradise were especially hard hit. The Camp Fire forced Feather River Hospital in Paradise to close, and it’s estimated that the fire destroyed over a third of the healthcare infrastructure overall.

At the time, organizations like SacValley MedShare played a mission-critical role in ensuring information was available to care teams looking after patients from Paradise who were displaced due to the fire.

From heroic stories of evacuations at hospitals like Adventist Health Feather River to desperate moments where people tried to ensure their friends and family were safe, the important role healthcare organizations played in collaborating and providing patient care was undeniable as these fires raged.

RELATED: California HIE to use $4.9M grant to connect ambulances with hospital patient data

Today, nearly all healthcare organizations have a preset plan for a variety of crisis situations, including fires. Still, natural disasters can prove particularly difficult for providers given the complexity of accessing, sharing and getting patients’ health records when time is of the essence. To streamline this process, California’s largest health information network, Manifest MedEx, is facilitating health record sharing between ambulance service providers and hospitals to ensure first responders have relevant patient data when they are in the field.

Working with six local emergency medical services (EMS) agencies, 13 EMS providers and 16 hospitals across eight counties, Manifest MedEx will give first responders serving 7.6 million Californians the ability to look up a patient’s health record from the ambulance. Before the trip is over, first responders will push critical information to the emergency department so clinicians can act quickly to treat patients when they arrive. When natural disasters strike, healthcare systems are stressed, and responding rapidly is paramount.

When asked about the impact of this partnership, Chuck Martel, a licensed and practicing emergency medical technician (EMT) in Minneapolis and a senior data and analytics executive with Anthem, had this to say: “As a first responder, I know that every second counts when it comes to saving a person’s life. This important collaborative will ensure that first responders have near-immediate access to patient information and that we can then share this insight with the emergency department before the patient arrives. Seamless information sharing like this ensures all members of the care team are fully prepared to provide personalized patient care under pressure.”

Enabling care coordination and communication when it is needed most

The recent hurricane in Florida further showcased the value of an HIE in times of natural disaster. Together, Florida Health Information Exchange and its health IT partner, Audacious Inquiry, activated the state’s emergency census service to help expand response efforts amid Hurricane Dorian. With the emergency census service, both acute and post-acute healthcare providers were connected through the same information network that Florida health agency officials can access. The network was used to update information on individuals believed to be missing after the hurricane.

RELATED: U.S. better prepared to handle health emergencies, but there are gaps: report

In addition, a new “command center” approach was tested in Florida by AdventHealth. The center keeps track of every patient at one of the health system’s nine hospitals in central Florida, as well as every patient that is transferred to and/or discharged from the hospitals.

When natural disasters put stress on our distributed and fragmented healthcare system, HIEs stand ready to provide life-saving information and infrastructure to support collaboration for providers, patients, and families on the front lines of a crisis.

Claudia Williams is CEO of Manifest MedEx, a California nonprofit health data network. She was previously senior adviser, health innovation and technology at the White House where she led data sharing, care transformation and precision medicine efforts.

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