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Allowing Heroes to Rise to the Occasion

April 17, 2014
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One of my favorite interviews in the past few months has been with Paige Patterson from the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) in Aurora.

I met with Patterson at this year’s HIMSS conference, and as she spoke about how the hospital responded to the terrible movie theater shooting in July of 2012, it was hard not to hang onto every word. She recreated the night in her head, from the time she got there and saw nurses running to the ED to when she began tracking the victims through a software system connected to the electronic medical record (EMR).

One of the things that stuck with me was what Patterson said after I asked her if she was nervous at all about using this kind of patient tracking technology in a real-life disaster situation where people’s lives hung in the balance. What she said was profound:

Having worked at the hospital for as long as I have, I had confidence in our physicians in our emergency department that they could do what needed to be done. We were the experts in our field. If we couldn't do it, who could? What I was more concerned about was how it would come together. But I knew the people who were in place were the right people at the right time. - Paige Patterson

The right people at the right time. When something as tragic as the Aurora movie theater shooting happens, is there anything more you can ask for than having the right people at the right time?

Of course it’s not that simple. The second part of Patterson’s answer to me at HIMSS stressed the importance of everything “behind the scenes” working seamlessly to ensure the right people at the right time can simply do their jobs. She noted that this obviously includes having reliable technology in place that can track patients and move them around as needed.

I recently thought about all of this as the media descended upon Boston for the one year anniversary of the marathon bombings. As someone who considers himself a Bostonian through and though, it’s an event that I think about quite often.  As I wrote last year after the bombings, the marathon is a sacred, citywide event for Boston. Last year, that sanctity was torn away for a brief moment and then, thanks to the efforts of the city’s finest people, was rebuilt and is now “stronger” than ever.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Much of the heroics on that day belonged to the countless doctors, nurses, and rescue workers, including the first responders on scene, who did whatever they could to ensure that those in desperate need were given critical care. Think about this, every single person who made it to a hospital that day survived. When you consider the fact that the bombs injured 264 people, this is simply remarkable.  

Did this happen by accident? While I am sure there was some luck involved, it mostly happened because, just like the people that Patterson commended at UCH in Aurora, the Boston hospitals were ready for this sort of thing. They had disaster readiness plans in place and going back to what Patterson said, the right people— talented people— were in place at the right time.

And yet, the Boston hospitals are not doing a victory lap. They are instead focusing on how they can improve their preparedness for another disaster. While people like me are giving them the proverbial pat on the back, they are thinking of areas that need betterment. One of the things they have implemented in place for this year’s marathon disaster preparedness plan?  According to a recent Reuters article: “A standard method for one city agency to track disaster victims in hospitals.”

The technology Patterson used to track patients in Aurora has now become universally adopted across all Boston hospitals. I would love to see it enabled everywhere. Not every disaster is going to take place in a large city with multiple renowned medical facilities, all located within a few miles of each other. This is just one of the many things that can be done “behind the scenes” to ensure that when tragedy strikes, (one more time, I promise) the right people are in place at the right time.

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