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How States, Territories and Private Organizations Can Leverage Health IT Solutions During Natural Disasters

Volunteers handing out water

The summer of 2018 delivered a multitude of environmental health crises across the globe, including powerful volcanic eruption on June 3 in Guatemala – the last of a series of volcanic events from the state of Hawaii, as well as Central America and Indonesia. North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are still recovering from the crippling effects of Hurricane Florence in the U.S., which caused severe flooding across these states’ coastal regions. Western states also confronted dangerous wildfires across the region – one prime example being Shasta County of California, which suffered from the largest wildfire event in California history. This prompted the White House to approve a major disaster declaration for the area.

The environmental impacts of these crises were exacerbated by hundreds of lives lost and thousands more families that were forced to evacuate their homes as FEMA has declared fire emergencies in more than two dozen separate fires in six states. Moreover, just last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency in the Northern Mariana Islands to provide relief and medical support to the U.S. territory affected by Typhoon Yutu.

Preparing For and Rebounding From Crisis

The rapid increase in natural disasters occurring propels us to consider all assets and resources needed to prepare for and rebound from the threat of these growing crises. Though many IT systems, electronic data and exchange capabilities exist nationwide that could help prevent, detect and respond effectively to crises, few have been adequately inventoried. They should also be optimized for opportunities to interoperate, integrate or facilitate ongoing information sharing to meet public health needs in response to emerging natural disasters.

Nevertheless, the ever-evolving health information and technology infrastructure offers local, state and territorial governments an opportunity to modernize their emergency preparedness and response capabilities. A recent example of this evolution is demonstrated by the Georgia Regional Academic Community Health Information Exchange expanded its connectivity to health information exchanges throughout the Southeast in response to Hurricane Florence via the eHealth Exchange — a health data sharing network part of the Sequoia Project. This demonstrates how adaptation and resilience are key to planning efforts.

With the use of community capital, social media data and the internet of things, local communities both in the U.S. and across the globe can more firmly establish more resilient and adaptable pandemic and all-hazards community systems, such as the Regional Disaster Health Response System (RDHRS) that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is developing. The goal of the RDHRS is to expand this public-private partnerships, adding trauma centers, burn centers, pediatric hospitals, public health labs, outpatient services and federal facilities like Veterans Affairs clinics to better meet the health care needs of the public in a disaster.

Health IT Community Working Together

HIMSS shares in this goal by creating opportunities for the health information and technology community, local, state and territorial officials to work together using existing policies, programs and technological solutions for emergency response and planning. As a result, a multitude of health crises and challenges that may arise (e.g., environmental impacts such as water contamination, medical impacts such as the spread of infectious diseases and abuse of illicit drugs such as opioids and methamphetamines) can be addressed more expeditiously.

Thus, the value and role of health information technology and management systems are essential to the creation of needed interoperable multi-sector systems, all of which should be established before a crisis event in order to be able to respond in timely and effective ways. For public health, prevention is a key component of keeping the public healthy and safe, and information sharing efforts aimed at times of crisis are enabled by routine information sharing efforts during times of relative calm.

Leveraging or rechanneling existing funding streams, integration of governmental services, utilization of open data and partnerships with health information exchanges are foundational requirements to more effectively respond to health crises and facilitate better health outcomes through legal, regulatory and/or policy changes across the following five critical domains:

  1. Public health
  2. Public safety
  3. Environmental health
  4. Human and social services
  5. Emergency medical services

HIMSS’s commitment to state and local health information and technology community collaboration focuses on creating opportunities to connect governmental public health practitioners, first responders and researchers creating innovative solutions. We encourage our members and partners to consider the HIMSS Innovative Technologies & Policies Checklist of actions that may create:

  1. Political will
  2. A local brain trust with public-private engagement to advance technologies for disaster risk management – including early warning, emergency response, data analysis and decision making
  3. Information sharing via mobile devices including satellite mobile phones

View the Innovative Technologies & Policies Checklist

These recommendations clearly point to opportunities in which technology can be an instrumental and vital part of an all-hazard, global disaster management system. Join us at HIMSS19 for further discussion about ways we can all create effective community-based solutions for emergency planning and response.