As Hurricane Irene approaches, so does the six-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when healthcare executives learned best from the nation's worst natural disaster about how to keep their hospitals operating.
Advice from execs who coped with Katrina
Now some of those executives are drawing upon their experiences to guide providers bracing themselves for the tropical cyclone that is expected to hit New York and New England this weekend. The scene is all too familiar for Leslie Hirsch, president and CEO of Denville, N.J.-based St. Clare's Health System (part of Catholic Health Initiatives), who started as CEO of New Orleans-based Touro Infirmary one week before Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Hirsch is now preparing his system for this hurricane after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) declared a state of emergency.
“Our command center is in full operation,” Hirsch said. “We're in disaster-alert mode,” he said, adding that St. Clare's is assessing its patient census. “We've cut off elective surgeries and elective admissions,” he said. He also said that St. Clare's will accelerate—where appropriate—patient discharges. The system has also completed an inspection of the roofs of its facilities to “make sure nothing needs fastening,” Hirsch said, and will have ham radio operators at each of its sites. The system plans to “shelter in place” and has alerted its staff accordingly.
Dr. Mark Peters is the president and CEO of Metairie, La.-based East Jefferson General Hospital, where he held the same post during Hurricane Katrina. Peters said providers preparing for Irene need to think through the worst-case scenarios and err on the side of being too careful. According to Peters, East Jefferson experienced three failures during Katrina that have since proven invaluable lessons in preparedness: power, communication and water supply. “Do you have back-up generators; have you tested them; and do they work?” Peters asked. And, because the hospital's phone lines went down during the storm, East Jefferson now has ham operators in place. Another essential planning strategy is to have established relationships with surrounding hospitals outside the area to “offload patients,” Peters said.
Clear communication among hospital leadership and staff is crucial during a disaster of this proportion, according to Warner Thomas, president and COO at the Ochsner Health System in New Orleans. He held the same position during Katrina.
“You need to over-communicate,” Thomas said. That requires staying calm and not getting caught in the heat of the moment. To do this, hospital leaders should be making rounds of the facility; holding morning and afternoon management meetings, and communicating with employees—both in the hospital and through Internet postings for those not in the facility.
Thomas also said hospitals should make sure they have auxiliary power and an ample supply of water.
“Make sure you have generators—and enough power to run all of your key systems for multiple days,” Thomas said, explaining that means having an adequate supply of fuel to operate those generators. “Make sure you've got five to seven days' worth of medical supplies, drugs, food and fuel,” he said.
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