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Health Care Risk Insights: Planning Ahead in the Event of a Disaster

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Every business must have plans in place to respond to a potential security threat or disaster situation, but it’s even more vital for health care facilities.

Risks such as natural disasters, public health concerns or criminal activity could cripple your facility if you’re not properly prepared. Though it’s often impossible to foresee the impact a disaster might have on your facility, having comprehensive preventive and response plans can help minimize the damage.

Risks such as natural disasters, public health concerns or criminal activity could cripple your facility if you’re not properly prepared. Though it’s often impossible to foresee the impact a disaster might have on your facility, having comprehensive preventive and response plans can help minimize the damage.

Without prior planning, you leave your facility open to financial disaster, especially if forced to close for a period of time. In addition, you put all your patients and potential patients in danger if you are unable to stay operating at a critical time. You may also be vulnerable to lawsuits claiming negligence if you are not prepared to respond to a disaster.

Fires and Natural Disasters

Disasters such as fires, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and earthquakes could cause power outages or structural damage that puts your patients at risk. According to the National Fire Protection Association, municipal fire departments respond to more than 6,000 structure fires in health care facilities every year.

Hurricane Sandy caused widespread power outages and flooding that compromised the ability of five hospitals and approximately 30 residential facilities to allow residents to shelter in place throughout the storm and its aftermath. This illustrates the importance of assessing your facility‘s disaster preparedness and making necessary improvements before a disaster occurs:

  • If your facility has a security or fire alarm system, be sure it is operating properly and that key personnel know how to arm and disarm it.
  • Make sure that fire suppression systems are regularly inspected and maintained. Also be sure that a sufficient number of trusted personnel know how to activate, operate and shut them down.
  • Have your local fire department conduct a pre-planned visit to your building. While there, they can identify potential hazards and plan fire suppression priorities.
  • Pay special attention to areas where you are storing explosive, flammable or toxic chemicals. These areas should be properly secured and inventoried, with limited hands-on contact of these materials when possible.
  • Conduct semi-annual fire or disaster drills.
  • Devise an evacuation plan for patients and staff, and a way to track evacuees. Assign roles and responsibilities to staff in case of an emergency or evacuation.
  • Create guidelines for how to reopen after an evacuation.

Public Health Concerns

From pandemics like swine flu and avian flu to unusually severe outbreaks of seasonal influenza, widespread illnesses can flood health care facilities with more patients than normal. Use these strategies to prepare for a major public health concern:

  • Devise a plan for staffing shortages and limited resources, and train staff on what to do if a pandemic strikes your facility.
  • Designate isolation rooms for patients known or suspected to have a contagious illness.
  • Provide physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, gloves, surgical gowns and other protective equipment to protect employees and other patients from infection.
  • Coordinate with area health care facilities in case of staffing shortages, patient transfers or overcrowding.

Criminal and Terrorist Activity

Theft and threats against patients and staff are just some of the crimes committed in health care facilities. Some facilities employ security officers, but all employees should be aware of activity in and around the facility:

  • Advise all staff and volunteers to report any suspicious persons or activity in or around the facility.
  • Establish and follow visitor control procedures such as mandatory sign-ins and strict visiting hours.
  • Review your procedures for issuing facility keys and access cards. At a minimum, keep lists of who has been issued keys or cards and have a procedure for handling a situation when a troubled employee is terminated without returning them.
  • Take special precautions when securing stores of medication, as this is likely your largest theft risk. Closed-circuit television can serve as an excellent crime deterrent, and when the system is equipped with a recorder, it can help solve crimes.
  • Discuss security with your local police department. Police departments are often very willing to provide information and support to local facilities.

Additional Disaster Response Planning

Keep these tips in mind to respond to disaster:

  • Keep copies of insurance policies and other critical documents in a safe and accessible location (e.g., a fireproof safe).
  • Evaluate which disasters are most likely to occur in your area, remembering to include the possibility for terrorist activity. Be sure you’re prepared for all of the risks you identify.
  • Develop a Disaster Recovery or Business Continuity Plan. If you already have one, make sure that it is up to date. This entails preparing for anything that disrupts your daily operations and planning for a backup option. You may consider identifying backups for essential functions, supply chains, personnel, procedures, data processes and communication channels. This will include ensuring that essential care continues to be provided to the best of your abilities, and essential equipment remains functional when possible.
  • Prepare for an extremely large influx of new patients, but realize that normal procedures may need to be bypassed. Hold drills, prepare for community volunteers, plan for effective internal and external communication, and make a policy for communicating about patients with other facilities.
  • Consider grief counseling for victims’ families and/or your staff following a disaster.
  • Review your policy for off-site backup of electronic health records. Ideally these records should be backed up and transmitted or sent off-site every day.
  • Have telephone call lists available—including cellphone and pager numbers—for all key personnel so required staff members can be contacted during non-working hours from any location. Review procedures for contacting staff during a disaster situation.
  • Consider establishing an alternate method for your phone service if the switchboard becomes unusable (e.g., forwarding incoming calls to a cellphone or remote number).
  • Be sure to discuss terrorism and applicable natural disaster coverage with your The Horton Group, Inc.  representative.

© 2017 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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