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Hospitals Used New Communication Tools During Swine Flu Scare

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media, May 12, 2009

From blogs to social networking sites like Twitter, hospitals and public health agencies across the country employed a variety of new technologies to spread the word about H1N1 (also known as swine flu).

It's safe to say that the face of emergency management communications has changed drastically since the last national disaster response of the September 11 attacks. Back then, hospitals primarily used phones, television, and e-mails to talk to staff members or communities, with sporadic Web site updates.

Less than eight years later, hospitals and the public can receive instant updates about new HlN1 cases from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Twitter page. As of Monday, the CDC had more than 130,000 Twitter users following its updates.

Many hospitals also tried the following approaches:

Posting videos. "One of the unique things we wanted to do was focus on staff safety" during the swine flu outbreak, says Chris Bellone, CHEP, an emergency preparedness coordinator for Rockford (IL) Memorial Hospital.

Emergency planning organizers there were able to develop an online video within 24 hours of approving it that showed staff members how to properly put on and take off personal protective equipment, such as respirators. The clips were posted on the facility's Intranet.

Meanwhile, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, used online video to show the public handwashing techniques and explain ways to talk to children about H1N1.  The hospital posted the videos on its Web site and also on You Tube.

Updating blogs. Blogging became part of the frontline battle for preventing flu infections. The chief medical officer of Children's Hospital Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, WI, updated his facility's blog with information about swine flu precautions. He did not mince words: "Those who report having two or more flu symptoms will not be allowed to enter. The same restrictions apply to staff."

Utilizing mass notification. A more modern version of the old phone tree, mass notification systems allow hospitals and other parties to reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people instantly by phone and Blackberry.

Rockford Memorial uses vendor Everbridge of Glendale, CA, for the hospital's mass notifications, in which a designated person dials a number, records a voice message, and then sends it off to a predetermined list of people, Bellone said.

Rockford Memorial's set-up allows the messages to be grouped by administrators and regional contacts for added convenience. For example, morning H1N1 briefings at the hospital could be relayed by mass notification to competing hospitals regionally so that the medical centers could collaborate during the swine flu outbreaks, Bellone said.

Drawbacks that need to be addressed
As with any new technology, there are concerns. Bellone has a profile on the Web-based business network Linked In, via which he waded through many posts and tidbits about H1N1. He found himself questioning the sources of some information.

"It's great to talk about it, but is this official or unofficial communication?" he asked. As the H1N1 scare slows down, hospitals and public health agencies will err if they curtail the use of new communication means, says Ric Skinner, GISP, owner of The Stoneybrook Group in Sturbridge, MA. Stoneybrook is a consulting firm that helps hospitals with emergency preparedness and geographic information systems.

"I think hospitals and healthcare facilities should … be comfortable with using multiple communication resources for emergency management," Skinner says. "That said, I don't believe systems should be activated just for emergencies. Rather, they need to be part of the daily routine."

Twitter and other social media avenues need to integrate into general hospital operations—including educating employees on how to use these sites—so that they can be ramped up when a disaster occurs rather than dusting them off during an emergency and hoping people remember the training, Skinner adds.

He hopes a positive after-effect of the H1N1 response is that hospitals will receive clear direction from federal agencies and The Joint Commission about "how best to provide the right information, at the right time, in the right format, and to the right people using redundant and robust technologies."


Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at swallask@hcpro.com.

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