Apr 2 2014
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2014 Preparedness Summit: Looking at the Past to Improve the Future

“Disasters pose questions of who [is helped] first and who...last,” said Sheri Fink, MD, PhD, a correspondent for The New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, to more than 1,000 attendees of the 2014 Preparedness Summit  in Atlanta this week. Fink is the author of Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, about the response by health providers, first responders, volunteers, patients and family members who rode out the storm in a hospital that lost power in the early hours of the hurricane. Fink was the headline speaker for the first plenary session of the Summit.

Fink’s book—which Umair Shah, deputy director of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Health Services in Texas and a panelist for the plenary discussion, urged the audience to read even if they only had time to skim—takes a close up look at the response from what may have been mercy killings to heroics by family members who commandeered boats to help evacuate patients.

Questions posed during the emergency in New Orleans, said Fink, included whether the hospital should be taking in new patients during the storm at a time when it was trying to evacuate the patients there, and whether criteria for first evacuees should be maximizing numbers of lives saved or maximum number of years of life saved.

“And because there is no right answer, we need to develop better evidence to [rely on] when difficult decision are needed,” said Fink, who had been a disaster and conflict first responder.

In response to the deaths and delays of Katrina, Fink and other panelists including Shah, Paul Biddinger, MD, FACEP, director, emergency preparedness and response exercise program at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Nicole Lurie, MD, MSPH, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ticked off disaster response improvements including the creation of Lurie’s office, and the development of new partnerships—in particular public and private ones such as with hospitals and health departments. One key change—mapped data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—helps responders identify people in the community whose medical conditions require them to shelter in place.  

Fink shared some recommendations for additional preparedness needs:

  • A need to update infrastructure that is vulnerable to collapse or breakdown across the country
  • Engage the public so that they will show their support for preparedness funding
  • Face the fact that all power can be lost and respond in that way
  • Promote research
  • Maintain flexibility and creativity

Fink shared some examples of creativity at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, including hospital workers who used a truck to transport patients to another side of the building and then carried them up rickety stairs to the helipad since it could not be reached by elevator; workers who hotwired boats to aid in evacuation; and workers who found that neonatal incubators would not fit on some of the evacuation helicopters and so kept babies warm by tucking their heads under their own clothing and continued to ventilate them manually.

>>Bonus Content: Read a NewPublicHealth interview with Paul Biddinger.

Tags: Emergency preparedness and response, Preparedness, Public health agencies