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Physicians Rush to Houston in Harvey's Wake

News  |  By Philip Betbeze  
   August 30, 2017

TeamHealth's clinician recovery team is sending out-of-state physicians and nurse practitioners to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

By boat and by helicopter, relief is coming to the exhausted clinicians of Memorial Hermann, the large not-for-profit health system in Southeast Texas.

Previous storms taught TeamHealth, one of the nation's largest clinical staffing firms, a lesson that they're putting into action right now as Hurricane Harvey finally moves east of the Houston area.

Harvey has left hundreds of thousands homeless, forced multiple hospitals to close, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

As the extent of the devastation became evident, TeamHealth mobilized its clinician recovery team.

Established following Hurricanes Katrina and tweaked following Ike and Sandy, the team is trained to spring into action in an emergency.

In this case, the TeamHealth unit is helping to relieve nearly 550 colleagues in the Houston area, many of whom are victims themselves and some of whom have been working at Memorial Hermann hospitals since Harvey made landfall last Friday night.

TeamHealth contracts with many hospitals in the 16-hospital Memorial Hermann health system to provide emergency room physicians, hospitalists, and other specialties.

The company's recovery team, consisting of credentialing, recruiting operations professionals, and clinician leaders, began organizing volunteers from among its more than 19,000 clinicians nationwide when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily suspended clinical practice statutes and rules to allow physicians from other states to assist with the disaster response.

The first group of 10 ER physicians arrived in Houston Tuesday. Mary Haven Merkle, MD, Team Health's senior vice president of integrated operations, says that within 14 hours of the governor's decision, those physicians had volunteered, received a temporary credential, and arranged transport.

Many drove from relatively close cities such as Dallas and Austin, and in some cases were transported to areas of greatest need by boat and Memorial Hermann helicopters because flooded streets made surface travel impossible.

More clinicians are on the way via the Houston's Hobby Airport, which is open to emergency traffic only.

"Many physicians and nurse practitioners [are] trapped in their homes and unable to get to work and the ones who made it in have been working long hours with no relief," says Merkle.

Almost all Memorial Hermann hospitals remain open, although several freestanding ERs have closed, and Sugar Land hospital was evacuated and shut down due to flooding.

Ben Taub Hospital, the county's safety net facility, experienced flooding, ran low on food, and had to transfer many patients to other hosptials, including Memorial Hermann hospitals.

In fact, says Robert Frantz, MD President of Team Health's West Group, which includes the Houston area, Memorial Hermann's hospitals are now primarily receivers of patients from other hospitals in the area that have had to be evacuated due to storm-related issues.

Related: Houston's Hospitals Treat Storm Victims and Become Victims Themselves

"We seem to learn well from our previous experiences," says Frantz, of the recovery team. "We've responded before, but we've gotten increasingly more sophisticated. We don't want to get good because of the misfortune that it brings, but… we mobilized resources in a very short time to ID qualified people to relieve fatigued and overwhelmed providers."

Some of those providers have lost everything, he says, but are continuing to work in what he calls a dynamic situation.

One doctor Frantz spoke with related that the mood was sad, because "everyone he is working with has lost most or everything and they're still at work," says Frantz. "More of our providers than not have had some level of property damage or loss."

Relief Efforts Continue

To help them, TeamHealth has established internal phone and email hotlines that reach Merkle and the HR department directly. Some families are in homes that are flooded and they need to get out and find a place to stay. TeamHealth immediately attaches an HR person to each of these cases as they come in, Frantz says.

Meanwhile, Merkle expects the work relief effort to continue, if not intensify, over the coming days and weeks. She says hospitalists, ER physicians, pediatricians, OB physicians and advance practice nurses numbering more than a hundred have volunteered and are being mobilized to rotate in and out.

Six hospitalists and an advance practice nurse will go in tomorrow, and over the weekend, about 26 physicians and 10-11 mid-levels will go in.

"The plan is we're going in waves every three to four days," she says. "And we're assessing needs about every eight hours to readjust."

Ground transport is a huge barrier, so most volunteer practitioners are prepared to stay at the hospitals during their time in the area. In some cases, TeamHealth has been able to reserve a few hotel rooms near the hospital for showers and brief rest. To make the most of the time of those rotating in, the company is providing a "cheat sheet" for onboarding to smooth out the process, and is using scribes to enter medical data for those who may not be familiar with the facility's EMR."

"Our team on the ground are delighted to see their colleagues," says Merkle. "Everyone's pitching in."



Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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