As the nation—particularly the Southeast U.S.—braces for the force of Hurricane Florence, which as of the time of this publishing has made landfall in North Carolina, just a day after Georgia’s governor declared a state of emergency for every county in the state, healthcare and health IT leaders continue to work in overdrive to help those in need.
Indeed, major disasters such as Hurricane Florence have an effect on healthcare information needs—even before they make landfall. This particular hurricane has already resulted in the evacuation of millions who have left the places where they normally receive care and where their healthcare records are housed. In these situations, electronic health records (EHRs) and health information exchanges (HIEs) can certainly play a large role in disaster relief efforts.
For instance, the Georgia Regional Academic Community Health Information Exchange (GRAChIE), which serves healthcare organizations and providers across Georgia, is currently working to connect to eHealth Exchange participants in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida in preparation for displaced evacuees. The idea is for GRAChIE to expand its connectivity to HIEs throughout the Southeast via the eHealth Exchange—a health data sharing network that is part of the Sequoia Project, inclusive of provider networks, hospitals, pharmacies, regional HIEs and many federal agencies, representing more than 75 percent of all U.S. hospital and 120 million patients—as quickly as possible before Hurricane Florence hits the coast, according to the organization’s officials.
Tara Cramer, GRAChIE’s executive director, says that her organization learned from what happened last year during Hurricane Irma, in that Florida was evacuating patients who ended up being displaced to Georgia. So even though GRAChIE used the eHealth Exchange to build out connections through Florida, the problem was that they had to do it so quickly, and at the time Florida was already under evacuation. As such, there weren’t HIEs on the other side of those connections to help with testing and validation, explains Cramer. “This time, we started very early to build out functional connections on both sides. This is the power of HIE, and it’s very technically possible, although it does require some magic to pull it off so quickly,” she says.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, where the storm is hitting hardest right now, leaders at the NC Health Information Exchange Authority (NC HIEA), which is based in Raleigh, and has only been fully functional since March 2016, have also been working throughout the week to establish and build connections with other HIEs.
Christie Burris, NC HIEA’s executive director, says she owes “a debt of gratitude” to Cramer and other GRAChIE other top executives, since on Tuesday morning Cramer alerted Burris that these connections were possible via the eHealth Exchange. “Shortly after that [conversation], we got together with the East Tennessee Health Information Network (eTHIN), I got my team together and said let’s talk with our vendors, so we can figure out the feasibility in doing these out-of-state connections,” recalls Burris. “And at that time, we weren’t sure when the storm was hitting, so we spent Tuesday through Thursday working with these different HIEs, and we pulled [those connections] off successfully,” she says.
Indeed, in addition to the connection with GRAChIE, NC HIEA signed agreements with four other HIEs this week so that bi-directional exchange could occur: Coastal Connect HIE (Wilmington, N.C.); eTHIN; MedVirginia (Richmond, Va.); and SCHIEX (South Carolina Health Information Exchange). NC HIEA also already had an established connection with GaHIN (the Georgia Health Information Network, based in Atlanta) and the VA HIE (Veterans Administration). “We signed agreements with five of those HIEs last night at 9 p.m.,” Burris says.
As it stands right now in North Carolina, explains Burris, more than 20 counties in the state have been evacuated, leading to numerous displaced citizens. What’s more, many pharmacies, hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices have been closed, and prescribing patterns disrupted, leading to many patients having to reconnect with their care regimens, often in new settings.
Shelters in New Bern, a riverfront city near the North Carolina coast, are at capacity as the town flooded last night, Burris notes. And shelters in Raleigh are also at capacity, so some of those folks got moved to Winston-Salem. Thankfully, Burris says that her HIE has a central repository in which it holds onto the patient data, meaning that even if a hospital has been shut down—such as in the town of Wilmington where every hospital but one has been closed—NC HIEA has those patient records up until the time the hospital stops sending them. “So we do have that historical [view of] the patient, and at this point we have over 5 million unique patient records in our North Carolina repository,” says Burris.
Cramer notes that caring for displaced citizens has been a core reason why GRAChIE has been such an advocate for standing up these HIE connections on the fly, and quickly, during the time of a disaster. On a day-to-day basis, she says, “We know that Georgia and North Carolina residents may present at an urgent care facility or the ER, but we also know that during these times, it’s heightened. So if we can equip clinicians with a patient’s allergy list and medication history, that’s still a great starting place to take care of someone who has been evacuated and is already going through a stressful time without friends and family. It is our job to broadcast that net and gather as much information as we can for when they present for care,” Cramer says.
To this end, she adds that at one of GRAChIE’s participating Georgia hospitals, 14 new patients with North Carolina addresses were registered yesterday. “And we are continuing to monitor that throughout the day to see where patients are coming from. It’s our job to watch that and make sure we are delivering quality information.” She also notes that even though Georgia has escaped the major brunt of the damage from this hurricane, the state will still get plenty of evacuees, and preparations have to be in order. “We started reaching out [to HIEs] before we knew a storm may be coming so that we could build relationships. We have built connections with GRAChIE that we don’t keep active all the time, but when we need to activate them, we can. That’s been a key for us since Hurricane Irma,” she says.
Both Burris and Cramer also expressed great gratitude to the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative (SHIEC), a national collaborative of HIEs, for making these connections possible. “I would have not known Tara if not for SHIEC,” admits Burris. And even though GRAChIE and NC HIEA are not yet part of SHIEC’s patient-centered data home (PCDH) project—a model based on triggering episode alerts, which notify providers that a care event has occurred outside of the patients’ “home” HIE, and confirms the availability and the specific location of the clinical data—both HIEs have plans to link up to it quite soon.
In the end, while Burris and Cramer believe in the power of HIEs when a storm hits, they also attest that providers of all types should not wait for a natural disaster to participate. “We want there to be value in the day-to-day exchange of information,” says Cramer. “In these times, you might have a more heightened awareness, but there is every-day value in health information exchanges.”