Managing safety during severe weather preparedness can be difficult for any healthcare facility, but coordinating emergency communications and response is particularly difficult for large hospitals with multiple campuses.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit South Texas, leaving residents in Houston and the surrounding area to deal with unprecedented flooding. The storm threatened infrastructure across industries and posed a major challenge to medical care centers. Texas Medical Center is the largest medical center in the world, and also also houses the largest children’s hospital and cancer treatment center, according to Time. During Hurricane Harvey, TMC managed to maintain operations and continuity of patient care.
Located in Houston, Texas Medical Center services over 10 million patients per year and is comprised of more than a dozen hospitals or medical centers, as per Time. The center briefed over 106,000 employees on an emergency plan ahead of the hurricane, but even with comprehensive safety planning, workers were still shocked by the sheer amount of water that inundated the city. The flooding made it virtually impossible to get in and out of many of the affiliated facilities, but the hospital was prepared for this eventuality and instituted a storm-time lock in policy that wouldn’t disrupt care for patients.
By taking a closer look at the practices implemented by Texas Medical Center, large hospitals can better understand what it takes to manage operations during a major storm. While preventing damage entirely may not be possible, there are key steps a large hospital can take to mitigate harm during severe weather situations.
Developing A Severe Weather Strategy For Hospitals
A key focus of hospitals during severe weather emergencies should be continuity of operations, and healthcare facilities have a responsibility to ensure patient care is not disrupted. During Hurricane Harvey, TMC instituted a “shelter-in-place” approach to hospital operations, as per Time. Staff was called in prior to the storm, and divided into shifts of working and rest. Nobody had to leave the premises, and beds were made available for employees during rest periods. The hospital chose this strategy based on lessons from prior storms - evacuation can be difficult when transporting patients with complex medical needs. If a vulnerable patient is evacuated, there is a risk of being stuck in an ambulance or mobile care unit without access to essential medical equipment or personnel.
The TMC campus also fared well during Hurricane Harvey due to infrastructure investments made after Hurricane Allison, which hit Texas in 2001. After Allison, safety managers decided to elevate the emergency generators and switching gear located at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, according to the TMC official website. The hospital also installed submarine doors, which are made of steel, to prevent flooding. During the storm, the hospital system did not lose power and was fully operational, with there was minimal water intrusion on buildings secured with the water resistant doors.
As with any emergency situation, communication was a priority. TMC needed an effective strategy to communicate internally, as over 16,000 staff members work in the hospital system. It was important for nurses, physicians, and surgeons to understand their role and responsibility during the "shelter-in-place" period. Elective surgeries and non-essential appointments were canceled to conserve resources, and administrators need to ensure that both patient and doctor were notified of schedule changes.
Doctors also took precautions with high-risk patients, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or dialysis and pregnant women due to give birth, so certain groups of were reached out to ahead of time. Patients receiving critical treatments were given the option to come into the hospital before the storm hit or find a more convenient facility to transfer care to, and were also ensured they would be able to come to the hospital after the storm passed. Women who were pregnant were checked into rooms at the Marriott Hotel next door to the hospital maternity ward.
Leveraging Technology to Manage Severe Weather Communications
Texas Medical Center’s patient and employee safety management during Hurricane Harvey proves that managing patient and employee safety, as well as ensuring continuity of care, is possible even during an unprecedented storm. According to TMC, the three tenants of disaster response for the largest hospital in the world are reliable data for decision making, effective organization for emergency response, and powerful tools for communication.
A mass notification system is critical for emergency communications during a severe weather event, and without one, the administrators in Texas would not have been able to communicate internally or with the community at large. Safety managers approximated that over 320,000 messages were sent over the course of Hurricane Harvey, including both general safety updates and targeted messages for specific hospital units or security teams. For this reason, hospital safety administrators should ensure that their system has the ability to send unlimited messages to an unlimited number of recipients in a record amount of time.
SMS Opt-In can also be a valuable feature for managing patient care during a storm of hurricane magnitude. If a patient has been called to the hospital ahead of the storm, they can text a keyword to opt in to receiving relevant alerts while on campus. This way, they will have access to critical storm updates, as well as any changes occurring within the hospital as the storm develops. If a safety manager is looking to invest in mass notification ahead of the next disaster, it’s important to have a fast, reliable system with a range of functionality that can address all of a larger hospital’s communication needs.
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