High Stakes

Houston: Healthcare’s Heroic Response

hurricane harvey

Hurricane Harvey is a devastating reminder to revisit your crisis communications plan.  

Hospitals in Houston have been preparing for years for a natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey. Texas Medical Center, for example, spent $50 million building a system of floodgates, President Bill McKeon told PBS. Employees at other hospitals are executing crisis plans, many of them heroically, as the storm continues to test the limits of the systems and reinforced structures they’ve built.

Today, with images of rescues fresh on their minds, healthcare communicators across the country should embrace the urgency and update their own plans – even if their health system isn’t in hurricane range. As The Economist reports, weather-related disasters of all kinds – earthquakes, tornadoes, fires – are becoming more frequent and intense.

Dust off your crisis plan

Most health systems have an overall crisis communications plan. The problem is that many of these plans have been sitting on a shelf for years, collecting dust. But while these plans have been shelved, the world has changed dramatically. Here’s a look at some of those changes and tips on how to plan in today’s landscape:

1) Health systems are larger and more complex. Our industry has experienced intense M&A for the past several years. That means that your health system may have added new hospitals and ambulatory care centers since your crisis plan was last written.

What you can do: Check whether your communications plan includes all facilities under your health system. Make sure you have spokespeople available at every facility and that your internal communications plan is solid enough to reach all team members even if power is lost or buildings are flooded or destroyed.

2) Operating margins are smaller. Over the past several years, hospitals have been under pressure to run on tighter operating margins, even as health systems have expanded. That means your crisis response budget may have changed.

What you can do: Discuss your crisis response budget with senior leadership to make sure you have the resources you need. Consider ways to free up cash quickly to execute your crisis plan in full. If the money is limited, re-work your plan to align with the realities of your budget.

3) Often, staff has turned over. During the tumultuous environment of the past several years, hospital staff has changed. That’s true throughout all levels of organizations. You could have lost a few of your super communicators who are integral in cascading the crisis plan.

What you can do: Identify super-communicators in every position – nurses, doctors, maintenance staff, technicians, etc. – to make sure your natural disaster messaging reaches every employee. Update your plan to include key, currently employed leaders at every level.

4) EHRs are ubiquitous: Now, every hospital system is required to manage electronic health records. This is a particularly tough mandate to manage in an emergency. In fact, HHS waived certain HIPAA requirements temporarily for hospitals in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. But it’s tough to change an entire system’s EHR policy on a dime.

What you can do: Anticipate how your caregivers would need to respond to a high volume of cases in an emergency, potentially when the EHR system is down. Communicate this part of your crisis plan clearly, along with the rest of your messaging.

5) The public is watching. Social media is a much different force today than it was even five years ago. In Houston, the picture of nursing home residents that made the rounds on Twitter drove a public and ultimately a rescue response. A group of boat-owners in Texas and Louisiana have used Facebook to create a makeshift Navy, the New Yorker reported, to rescue trapped residents.

What you can do: Adapt your crisis plan to incorporate the community’s conversation on social media. Prepare your communications team to respond to patients and civilian rescuers looking for ways to get to your hospital. Designate someone to respond in real-time to images and questions that surface, either from members of the community that need your help, or from your own employees.

Bottom line: Now is the time to make sure your crisis communications plan reflects where your health system and the world is today.



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