Public Health and Health Care Professionals Prevent Health Impacts of Disasters

Nicole Lurie, M.D., MSPH

This blog post is part of a weekly series focusing on different aspects of public health leading up to Public Health Thank You Day on Monday, November 21, 2016. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #PHTYD and visit www.publichealththankyouday.org for more information.

Professionals in public health and health care work tirelessly, day in and day out, to protect not just the community’s health but our nation’s health security. In times of crisis we work even harder to protect health, particularly for the most vulnerable members of society, including those who have special medical conditions.

My agency, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stood up after Hurricane Katrina to serve as the unique focal point for public health and health care sectors to tackle the complex health impacts that accompany disasters. Together, we’ve made tremendous strides in helping community members who otherwise would end up overwhelming local hospitals or dying.

For example, we recognized that extended power outages create life-threatening situations for millions of people who rely on dialysis, daily medication, or electricity-dependent medical equipment at home like oxygen concentrators and home ventilators. Increasingly, dialysis centers schedule early dialysis for patients ahead of anticipated disasters like hurricanes. This new way of doing business is growing because, working together, the dialysis community and ASPR demonstrated that early dialysis before a dangerous storm keeps patients out the hospital and saves lives.

We still have work to do. Dialysis providers need ways to exchange important information about a patient who needs to use a different facility after a disaster. Patients need to know where to go if the center is closed for too long after a disaster or to contact the Kidney Community Emergency Response Coalition to find an open center.

A growing number of people use insulin or other medication to treat chronic conditions. They need to remember to bring the medication with them if they evacuate. For refrigerated medication, people need to know how long their specific medication can remain at room temperature. Public health and medical providers educate such patients. Prompted by ASPR, pharmacies have started to contact their customers before dangerous storms, reminding them to check their medicine supply and get a refill. While these companies see a financial benefit of sending pre-storm alerts, in public health and health care we understand the broader health benefit for our communities.

Still, there’s more to do. Patients need to remember to ask for copies of their prescriptions from their pharmacies to replace medication that is forgotten in the rush to evacuate, gets lost or is destroyed in a disaster. They need to know where open pharmacies may be as their community recovers from an emergency.

ASPR created the emPOWER Map as part of an initiative to help the public health and medical community plan for the needs of people with chronic health conditions and, ultimately, save lives. Every hospital, first responder, electric company, and community member can use the map to find out how many Medicare beneficiaries have electricity-dependent equipment in their state, territory, county, and even zip code. With emPOWER, they can turn on real-time severe weather tracking to identify areas and populations that may be impacted by storms and at risk for power outages.

With this information, the public health, health care and emergency management sectors can better anticipate potential access and functional needs; they can construct emergency plans for the whole community, and assist at-risk community members before, during and after an emergency. Public health authorities can dive deeper into the data to determine what types of equipment or special needs people in the community have – without identifying who the people are – to enhance health emergency plans. If needed during a disaster, public health authorities can request special access to data about who these people are and where they live so they can find and rescue these vulnerable residents. In just the first year, health officials in dozens of states began using the emPOWER Map to aid their communities before and during emergencies.

While we’re making strides in putting tools in place for communities to use, what matters most is the people who use them: the public health and healthcare professionals working with patients and whole communities to help them be ready for disasters and recover from them. Today, people across the country are more likely to come through crises with their health intact, in large part due to the vigilance of these dedicated professionals. Thank you for your constant service to our nation. 

Nicole Lurie, M.D., MSPH, is the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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You can change the image of things to come. But you can’t do it sitting on your hands … The science community should reach out to Congress and build bridges.
The Honorable John E. Porter