As Hurricane Florence churns toward the East Coast this week, disaster preparedness is a timely topic, yet a new survey finds that only 72 percent of healthcare providers believe their organization’s disaster plan is comprehensive enough to cover a variety of disaster scenarios both inside the organization and across the community.
The findings are even more troubling among specialty care providers, such as cardiologists and endocrinologists, who provide critical treatment to individuals with chronic diseases, with just 29 percent reporting that they have a comprehensive disaster plan in place. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of survey respondents were affected by two or more disasters in last five years, according to the survey, yet most respondents doubt their organization’s disaster plans are up to the task.
DrFirst, a provider of e-prescribing and medication management solutions, surveyed 109 healthcare professionals across acute, ambulatory, hospice and home care about disaster preparedness. According to the DrFirst, the results are critical for addressing potential safety issues that affect the health and lives of millions of Americans who are increasingly subject to hurricanes, wildfires, and floods as well as other man-made disasters like digital and criminal attacks.
“The fact that almost 70 percent of the surveyed healthcare providers have been affected by more than two disasters in the last 5 years should be a major wake-up call for the healthcare industry,” G. Cameron Deemer, president of DrFirst, said in a statement. “As we learned in the aftermath of major disasters such as hurricanes Maria and Harvey, natural disasters lead to surging demands for acute and emergency care, especially from the most vulnerable patients who may have been displaced from their homes without medications or critical medical supplies, like oxygen or diabetic testing equipment. We must take measures now to address the critical gaps impacting patient care and safety, such as communication challenges and ready-access to medical records and specialty care providers.”
The survey revealed another key vulnerability—the widespread dependence on disaster communications methods that fail to meet legal requirements for secure communications between medical teams, pharmacies, and patients, according to the survey. Under the federal law known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a patient’s private health information can only be shared with the patient or other providers via secure methods such as password-protected portals and secure messaging.
One-third or more of clinicians surveyed across acute, ambulatory and hospice/home health state that calling by phone is their top method for communicating with pharmacies, EMS units, patients and families, local authorities, and community health providers in times of disaster. Secure messaging and email complete the top three modes of communication.
A striking number of clinicians use regular unsecured text messaging to reach hospitals: more than one-quarter of respondents use this mode to communicate with hospitals during and immediately after a disaster strikes, and 22 percent report using unsecured texting to communicate with patients or their family members. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the use of phones for texting of patient health information is only permissible through a secure messaging platform that provides message encryption. Encryption is also required when emailing patient health information.
Healthcare professionals working in hospitals were more aware of the need for secure messaging tools than individuals working in other settings, including specialty care providers. Forty-four percent of hospital-based respondents said that secure, HIPAA-compliant medical messaging is a key requirement of a disaster preparedness plan.
In fact, hospital-based respondents indicated that the only requirements more important than secure messaging were the installation of backup generators in case of power outages (56 percent) and the ordering and maintaining of extra inventory of supplies and medications (52 percent). Yet, specialty providers place the need for including secure messaging at the very bottom of their disaster planning requirements.
Survey respondents also see telehealth is a viable disaster solution, as 45 percent cited telehealth as an effective option to provide care to patients across the community during or immediately after disasters or emergencies. However, more than half expressed concerns that connectivity and other technical issues could impact the reliability of telehealth, and only 27 percent believe their organization has deployed adequate telehealth capabilities.
Another key finding from the survey is that many organizations preparing for an impending disaster still rely heavily on paper, with most advising patients to keep copies of their medical records. Just 40 percent of respondents believe their electronic health record (EHR) has sufficient information available to take care of all patients during a disaster.