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3 Ways Health Systems Can Prepare for Natural Disasters

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   October 09, 2018

All eyes on disaster preparedness as Hurricane Michael approaches.

As Hurricane Michael spins toward the Florida Panhandle, health systems in Florida and neighboring states are scrambling to prepare for the storm. Here are three things to consider to ensure your health system is properly prepared should a natural disaster strike close to home.

1. Use Telehealth Services to Provide Service to Patients During and After Disasters

If you have direct-to-consumer telehealth services, make sure your patients and community are aware that this is an excellent way to address routine healthcare needs during and after the storm when offices may be closed, transportation limited, and some roads possibly impassable.

Nemours Children's Health System discovered the power of telehealth last year when Hurricane Irma hit Florida. Calls to Nemours CareConnect, the system's 24/7 direct-to-consumer app, increased by 2,000% over the same period the previous year. Busiest times? The days before and after the storm. The reasons for the televisits were no different than the calls Nemours typically receives: fevers, skin infections, GI complaints, and respiratory illnesses.

Read more about the health system's experience in Telehealth Offers Eye Into Hurricane Impact Zone as Florence Targets Carolinas.

A number of national telehealth providers are offering free services to those impacted by Hurricane Michael:

  • American Well is offering free video visits with board-certified physicians (24/7) and therapists for those impacted by Hurricane Michael in the state of Florida. The company says hundreds of people per day took advantage of a similar offer during the two weeks of Hurricane Florence relief last month. To access services, individuals can download the Amwell app from the iTunes App Store or Google Play.

    American Well also has engaged partners with telehealth apps powered by American Well. The following payers, hospitals, and healthcare systems are offering coupon codes and/or no cost visits for people in the affected Florida regions: Cigna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (which provides telehealth services to the Southeast), Capital Blue Cross, Capital Health Plan (Florida), Baptist Health South Florida, BayCare Health System, Nicklaus Children's Hospital, and Community Health Systems.
  • Doctor on Demand announced it will cover video visits at no cost to all those impacted by Hurricane Michael now through October 21, 2018. Users can enter the code HURRICANEMICHAEL to redeem a free visit with a medical physician. The free app is available on iTunes or Google Play, or individuals can create an account on the website. Doctor on Demand provided over 2,000 covered visits during Hurricane Harvey and Irma, as well as aiding victims from Hurricane Matthew, the California wildfires, and most recently, Hurricane Florence.
  • MDLIVE is providing free online health visits between October 10‒24 to individuals and families affected by the hurricane through the MDLIVEcares program. Residents along the Gulf Coast experiencing the destructive impact of Hurricane Michael can call the dedicated MDLIVE hotline at 888-959-9516 and provide the code MICHAEL18 to schedule their initial consultation. Consultations after that call will be conducted via telephone or video, enabling individuals to select the most convenient platform for their situation.
  • Teladoc Health is also offering free services to Gulf Coast residents impacted by the storm. Call 855-764-1727 to access the hotline set up for this purpose. Current members in affected areas are also welcome to use the hotline to receive a free general medical visit. In addition, Teladoc Health is supporting efforts by the American Red Cross, with a separate dedicated hotline available through that organization.  

2. Ensure You Have Advance Connections Set With Your Health Information Exchange

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs), play a critical role in making patient records available when people are displaced by natural disasters. But there's a catch. Electronic connections must be set up in advance by HIEs in the impacted areas and in locations where patients may migrate. And, health systems and providers on both sides of the disaster must participate in an HIE and be connected to a data-sharing network for the data transfer to occur. Learn more by reading Lessons From Florence: Set Up Advance HIE Connections.

In preparation for Hurricane Michael, “We have already begun our coordination efforts," says Kelly Thompson, CEO of The Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative (SHIEC).

"I’ve talked with several of our HIEs today and we are planning calls for tomorrow as well," Thompson reports. "Our approach will be similar to what we did for Florence. Michael is not projected to be as high of a category, but it seems to be moving and increasing in speed faster than Florence."

Georgia expects to get a number of evacuees and is preparing accordingly. Tara Cramer, executive director of the Georgia Regional Academic Community Health Information Exchange (GRAChIE), says, “We are shoring up existing connections with Tallahassee, Tampa, and others. Our South Georgia hospitals are a major concern for us, and we are working with them now on planning and response.”

3. Explore Other Innovations to Help Your Patients Prepare

A number of companies are developing apps and solutions to help patients better manage their health. Backpack Health provides a platform that could be ideal for those displaced by natural disasters.

The company offers a mobile and cloud-based app that allows users to access their health information instantly in emergency situations, which can be critical for those with chronic, serious, and rare health conditions. According to the company, complete medical records (medical conditions, medications, allergies, and treatments, etc.) in multiple languages are just a click away, accessible on the web, iPhone or Android devices, and even offline. 

The company works closely with rare disease communities and is recommended by a number of organizations, including The Marfan Foundation, Adrenal Insufficiency United, The Ehlers-Danlos Society, Cure Duchenne, Amyloidosis Foundation, and Oscar Mike Foundation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add additional information about payers and providers offering free and discounted services through the American Well platform, plus to add information from MDLIVE and Teladoc Health.

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: iStock Photo

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