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Hurricanes' Impact on Health Information

When Mother Nature is at her angriest, it can make human beings feel utterly powerless.

As I watched the images of Superstorm Sandy wreak havoc on so much of the country, I flashed back to the memory of the 2011 tornado that touched down in Joplin, Mo., the deadliest U.S. tornado in more than 60 years.

During the worst of that storm, I was at my 85-year-old mom's house in Springfield, Mo., just 75 miles east of Joplin. More specifically, we were scrunched together in her closet, doing our best to calmly wait out the storm.

Fortunately, the tornado spared Springfield, but it was heartbreaking to turn on the TV and see the devastation in Joplin. When I went there a week later to visit health information management (HIM) colleagues and friends, the town looked like a war zone.

Despite the conditions, doctors and HIM professionals at St. John's Regional Medical Center and Freeman Health System performed heroically. St. John's, in particular, was lauded for its decision to already have started EHR implementation by initially converting paper into an electronic format via a document imaging system.  Its EHR implementation combined with a sound information technology disaster recovery plan and support from the integrated healthcare delivery system added positively to the recovery efforts.

One lesson we can learn from these devastating storms is that while we are powerless to stop weather-related disasters, it is our responsibility - as HIM professionals and patients - to prepare for them. In fact, there are key steps we can take to prepare immediately.

An AHIMA practice brief lays out the framework for developing an organizational disaster plan. Once you conduct the preliminary research to determine the specific challenges your organization may face, the next step is to list the types of disasters that could affect your department's core processes and then create a contingency plan.

Once you have a plan, it must be tested and reviewed with all staff members to ensure compliance and eventual success. The training is a perfect opportunity to identify areas where the plan may fall short or need enhancements.

In a real disaster, the loss of historical health information can slow patient care, making it difficult to confirm proper medication dosages and major health events. By planning in advance, an organization can mitigate potential workflow disruptions in order to provide patients with the best possible care.

As for patients, HIM professionals must make them aware that there are a number of things they can do right now to set up a personal disaster plan. An article in the Journal of AHIMA poses questions that every person should be able to answer ahead of an emergency.

One particularly key question is what special needs do you and your family have? For instance, do you have a list of all medications - including dosages and allergies available? Do you have a list of emergency contacts that includes doctors' names and phone numbers?

It is important for a patient to remember that health records maintained solely by their provider can be compromised in a disaster. One way for a patient to prepare is to create an electronic personal health record (PHR).

In a PHR, the patient determines right of access and proactively collects relevant information about their medical history. For example, think of how handy it would be to have a list of medications and allergies, significant illnesses, and an overview of your medical history at your fingertips.  A PHR not only provides useful information to the doctor but it allows the patient to be more knowledgeable and a more effective communicator with providers. And these examples only scratch the surface of what a PHR should ultimately contain. Comprehensive information about starting your own PHR can be found at AHIMA's website.

Patient portals also can be a valuable resource for consumers in preparation for a disaster. They can offer secure, remote access to health information created and maintained by a facility's EHR and can be a secure communication link in an emergency. They allow patients to download their personal health information, and they are being implemented more as a result of the Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirements. It is incumbent on HIM professionals to encourage patient portal and PHR adoption because of their accessibility in event of a disaster.

Finally, AHIMA recognizes that in disasters, sometimes extraordinary assistance is needed. That is why the AHIMA Foundation established the Health Information Relief Operation (HIRO, pronounced "hero") to assist HIM professionals whose personal or professional lives have been severely disrupted by a natural or man-made catastrophe.

On the topic of planning, Benjamin Franklin once said: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." While HIM professionals and patients alike have little control during a disaster, we can control our preparation.   

Julie Dooling is director of HIM Solutions for the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

Articles Archives

There is also an ASTM Standard Guide for Disaster Recovery as relates to transcription services which was developed several years ago(ASTM Standard Guide-E2682.09)

Kathy Sanders, CMT, RHIT,  MT-IV,  Columbus Regional HospitalNovember 23, 2012
Columbus, IN


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