September is recognized as Emergency Preparedness Month in the United States, as an annual reminder that the best way to minimize damage after a disaster is by being ready before it happens. So far in 2022, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already declared more than 60 natural disasters across the country. From fires in states in the West and Southwest to flooding in the South and Northwest, along with severe heat waves and droughts in the Northeast, no part of the country has been spared this season. This is why communities must have emergency preparedness plans in place.
While there is ample information about how individuals and communities should prepare for disasters, when it comes to healthcare, establishing the health information infrastructure needed to support safe care delivery during a disaster is also essential. Katherine Lusk, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Texas Health Services Authority (THSA), knows how important this is. THSA’s mission is to promote, implement, and support secure electronic exchange of health information in the state through its statewide health information exchange (HIETexas).
During a Q&A, Lusk shared insights into how THSA prepares for emergencies in Texas and why health information technology (health IT) should be top of mind for communities developing preparedness plans.
Community Outreach and Partnership for Emergency Preparedness Plans
When it comes to emergency planning, the saying “it takes a village” is quite true for communities preparing for natural disasters. Disaster response planning requires the active engagement and coordination of many organizations, along with community outreach initiatives to ensure people know where to go for information and medical care in an emergency. Lusk explained that THSA engages with the community through social media outreach during preparedness month to provide updated information and details about planning for emergencies.
Reaching everyone with the information they need to be prepared requires the collaboration of many community organizations and agencies. Lusk shared: “We have reached out to the community to secure partnerships with those agencies that are actively participating in support of the community during a disaster. And of course, we are always looking for more partners to assure our community is aware of the support available to them.”
THSA coordinates with a range of partners to work through emergency preparedness plans, including:
- State and regional disaster response organizations like San Antonio Metro Health
- The Governor-appointed Board of Directors
- State-contracted disaster response organizations, such as BCFS Health and Human Services and the American Red Cross
- Frontline emergency responders in the state
- Health IT partner, Audacious Inquiry, a PointClickCare Company, for community health reporting and real-time clinical data delivery through HIETexas PULSE
HIETexas PULSE is a cloud-based software solution built for public health and emergency management authorities and other entities to solve critical gaps in patient care during public health emergencies and disasters. HIETexas PULSE enables authorized users to access medication and clinical histories to improve direct patient care for individuals who have been displaced outside their normal healthcare environment, conduct epidemiological assessments, and initiate other public health activities.
To bolster these relationships, particularly as they relate to utilizing the health IT tools that THSA offers, Lusk says, “As a means to build trust, we provide in-services on the use of HIETexas PULSE, ask our partners for ideas on improving PULSE, communicate updates to PULSE to them as they occur and communicate with them on a regular basis. In addition, we share lessons learned during tabletop disaster drills to allow everyone to grow from the experience and to let them know that we take their feedback seriously.”
Emergency Preparedness Drills for Disaster Readiness
Staging emergency preparedness drills to check that everyone involved knows what to expect and how to use the technology and tools necessary during emergency response is essential to disaster readiness. THSA conducts ongoing internal reviews of HIETexas PULSE to ensure that it is working optimally and does ongoing outreach with their partners to let them know this tool is available to them. Then, the system is put to the test during tabletop disaster drills. THSA organizes these practice drills with their community partners to simulate disaster response in a replicated environment with the software and response protocols that will be employed during a true emergency.
Lusk advises states and organizations to leverage emergency preparedness drills as a key to being disaster ready: “Connect with your community and practice! HIETexas PULSE is designed to be user intuitive, but there are tips and techniques that have to be communicated to the frontline community. For example, this is a national database which requires that additional patient-identifying information be entered to assure disaster response caregivers can access the evacuated citizens’ medical records.”
Practicing with community partners through drills allows the healthcare providers and organizations involved in supporting public health during an emergency to know what to expect during disaster response and to feel ready to leverage the health IT tools with confidence. When natural disaster strikes, it is critical that all involved in emergency response are prepared to reduce any additional challenges that could come from lack of training or practice.
Why Health IT Solutions Need to Be Part of Disaster Preparedness
There are so many safety factors to consider during a natural disaster, but supporting continuity of healthcare is at the top of the list. Patients may be displaced from their routine care networks, healthcare infrastructure may be compromised, and frontline emergency response workers may be entering an unfamiliar community to provide lifesaving care.
Lusk explained how previous disasters in Texas highlighted the need for solutions that support continuity of care: “We saw a community need during hurricanes when families were displaced and the potential for care being compromised due to lack of access to clinical information when records were destroyed. This August, Congressman Michael Burgess spoke at the Better Together Conference by CIVITAS and DirectTrust on visiting a hospital in Houston and seeing medical records with mold on them, which, as such, were destroyed.”
As a result of these past experiences, the state of Texas has recognized the need to work with organizations like THSA to ensure that health IT and interoperability are prioritized as part of emergency response plans. According to Lusk, “THSA has been added to the list of organizations that will be contacted immediately upon a disaster being declared by the governor. In addition, we monitor the status of disasters on our own so that we are always in a state of readiness. THSA has also worked with organizations responsible for disaster response and have integrated their activation processes and checklists with those of HIETexas PULSE to ensure seamless integration.”
With these considerations in mind, it becomes clear why health IT solutions are so important. Software like HIETexas PULSE ensures that healthcare providers can track their patients who are displaced in a disaster and allows frontline workers to access clinical data they need to provide safe and effective care.
In closing, Lusk explained the goal of the THSA emergency preparedness plans: “We wanted Texans and others who might visit our state during a disaster to have their clinical information available to support care delivery. Our goal is to ease the burden of a disaster as much as we can and PULSE is one of the tools.”
Make sure your business or organization is ready for emergency response with these resources.
To learn more about partnering with Audacious Inquiry, A PointClickCare Company, for health IT solutions, contact us today. For details about how our solutions support emergency response, download our eBook.
About Katherine Lusk, MHSM, RHIA, FAHIMA
Katherine Lusk, MHSM, RHIA, FAHIMA is the Vice President, Strategic Partnerships for the Texas Health Services Authority with a focus on cross-industry facilitation of secure electronic exchange of trusted health information. She has long championed interoperability serving in multiple roles including DirectTrust Roundtables, eHealth Exchange Workgroup, ONC Patient Identity Workgroup, Epic’s Care Everywhere Governing Council, ONC / AHIMA Project US@ Companion Guide, AHIMA 2021 President / Chair and the DirectTrust Board. Current efforts are focused on tackling barriers to interoperability as a vendor agnostic convener for all healthcare participants with the THSA Interoperability Collaborative.
About the Author
Diana Bauza is a content writer based in Philadelphia. She writes about products and services in the health and technology industries, with the goal of empowering consumers with quality information to help them make decisions that best serve their needs.