Past Storms, Present Lessons

What healthcare leaders learned from past disasters to respond to Hurricane Florence.

This time, they were ready.

While the true extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Florence won’t be known until the floodwater recedes in coming days, it appears that healthcare leaders in the region picked up on lessons from the past to put strong emergency readiness plans in place.

Few events can test leadership more than natural disasters, which now number around 400 per year, but most hospitals and other healthcare facilities in risk-area zones are providing textbook examples of aligning and communicating plans. “Preparedness is dealing with the unexpected in an organized and successful way,” says Harry Greenspun, MD, chief medical officer and manager director, Korn Ferry Health Solutions.

The large number natural disasters are giving healthcare leaders chances to learn more about and implement emergency plans deployed during past ones. In the case of Florence, early tracking of the storm gave leaders ample time to evacuate hospitals and other healthcare facilities and set up mobile medical shelters in affected areas. Organizations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida began working together before the storm to hit on ways to connect electronic health records and information exchanges to aid displaced evacuees.

The lack of such proactive measures was a key weak link with Hurricane Irma last year, when displaced Florida residents in Georgia couldn’t get their medications filled or have medical histories transferred for continued treatment. Warren Ross, senior client partner and global sector leader for academic medicine at Korn Ferry, says Hurricane Irma proved a culture-changing moment for leadership at the 1,000-bed Tampa General teaching hospital where he serves as a board director. Ross says Tampa General’s new CEO had only been in the job a few weeks when Irma hit, but he showed strong leadership agility in carrying out the hospital’s elaborate emergency preparedness plan.

“He rolled up his sleeves and stayed at the hospital and was on the ground making sure everyone carried out their duties and helped out wherever he could,” Ross says. “From that moment, he had the respect of everyone in the organization.”

But the real test is yet to come. Despite being downgraded from a hurricane, Florence has already dropped a record amount of rainfall on the region. The storm already claimed lives, damaged infrastructure, knocked down homes, closed roads, and more. Now the concern is over flooding — all that water has to return to the ocean somehow. Flood and wind, not the actual rain, were chiefly responsible for the $200 million in damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Facilities in the path of Hurricane Florence need to be prepared for possible water surges and inland flooding that could block access to care or supplies, for instance. Put another way, how well the emergency plan was executed won’t be known for at least another week or more.

“Hospitals and healthcare facilities are clearly more prepared than they were a decade ago,” says Jennifer A. Horney of the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences’ Disaster Research Center. “However, they will have to continue to be creative about both strengthening and adapting all aspects of their infrastructure to the impacts of these increasingly damaging storms.”