The Critical Role of Electronic Access to Health Information During Times of Crisis

November 5, 2012 2:44

As our hearts go out to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy, we are reminded of the critical role of health information sharing during times of crisis. While many hospitals were well prepared to handle the challenges posed by Hurricane Sandy, we are learning that others were not. Several hospitals lost power due to flooding and had to evacuate. It also meant several had to revert to paper-based records— indicating a need to anticipate how to store their data at a time of a crisis.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 sharply illustrated the need for electronic health records, as a large portion of paper based records were lost during the storm. In response, Markle and a public/private sector coalition spearheaded KatrinaHealth, an online service to help individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina work with their health professionals to gain access to their electronic prescription medication records.

Through a single web portal—KatrinaHealth.org—authorized pharmacists and doctors were able to gain access to records of medications evacuees were using before the storm hit, including specific dosages. Having this information helped evacuees renew their medications, and helped health care professionals avoid prescription errors and better coordinate care. Principals engaged with KatrinaHealth identified many lessons learned and “after action” recommendations in anticipation of future disasters. In Sandy’s aftermath, it may be useful to re-iterate them:

  1. Engage in advance planning and put pieces in place now
  2. Take advantage of existing resources
  3. Address system and electronic health record design issues
  4. Integrate “Emergency” systems into daily routine
  5. Create systems that are simple to access
  6. Improve communications strategies to engage with the public
  7. Overcome policy barriers – especially those related to privacy

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the use of information technology to support health information sharing continues to grow across the country. Electronic health record use among providers is on the rise, patients are leveraging information technology to better manage their personal health and health care, and health information sharing is growing across organizations and communities. The benefits of information technology to support access to health information as well as information sharing are powerful, not only on a day-to-day basis, but during crises. For example,  health information stored electronically can be backed-up off-site and accessible from multiple locations, enabling patients and providers access to the information they need to make informed health decisions even when a specific physical location is compromised, such as during a flood.

The Markle Connecting for Health collaborative has long worked to advance the adoption of information technology to improve the quality and cost effectiveness of America’s health care. As this crisis has put into stark relief, achieving wide-spread, interoperable, private and secure sharing of health information remains an important north star for the nation.

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