Preparing for the worst: Hospitals...

April 17, 2006

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, disaster preparedness became a priority for the nation's hospitals. Then interest in the topic trailed off somewhat. But in the late summer of 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed the Gulf Coast, and disaster preparedness was suddenly back with a vengeance.

So how are health systems preparing for the next catastrophe? Are they adequately equipped to handle a biological and chemical attack or the unpredictable wrath of Mother Nature? And what about the role of the pharmacist in disaster preparedness? Are their skills and knowledge being utilized to the fullest?

A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention revealed that while more than 75% of hospital emergency response plans address explosive or incendiary attacks, only 20% of hospitals conduct drills to prepare for these types of attacks. Hospitals in metro areas are more likely to have such plans and to conduct drills than are hospitals in non-metro regions . But hospitals alone can't bear the brunt of disaster preparation. A coordinated community effort that includes federal, state, and local government participation is essential.

On the federal level, the threat of a potential global pandemic has prompted secretary of Health & Human Services Michael Leavitt to announce in January the release of Pandemic Influenza Planning: A Guide for Individuals and Families. The guide is part of the federal government's strategy to increase pandemic preparedness, which includes the establishment of the new International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza as well as the stockpiling of vaccines and antiviral medications. In December 2005 HHS issued a preparedness checklist for businesses as well as state and local health departments.

In Salt Lake City, a multidisciplinary group representing hospitals that are part of Intermountain Health Care, the state of Utah, and various community pharmacies meet monthly to coordinate disaster-planning initiatives. Among the group's goals is to make sure that when a disaster strikes, extra supplies of antibiotics and other vital drugs and medical supplies are available. Ten locations around the city have been designated as backup sites where extra supplies can be accessed in case anything happens to the main location. In addition, Jorgenson explained that a call list has been established with the names of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians who could be contacted in an emergency.