Healthcare Emergency Preparedness: An Improved Game Plan for 2011

Looking back, it seems that 2010 should make those working in healthcare emergency preparedness very proud. The hard-working professionals in that field recovered well from the tremendous demands placed on them by the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 – while they also were managing an excess of other emergency situations with both effectiveness and grace. The positive impacts seen from emergency managers’ efforts as they responded to the earthquake in Haiti, dealt with flooding and other serious natural events, and managed not only “active shooter” and other violent in-hospital incidents have raised the stakes and added to the proud heritage of the dedicated and tireless professionals working in healthcare, emergency medical services (EMS), and public health.

Looking forward to 2011, many of those same professionals will manage events similar to those seen in the past, but there also will be a few completely new and unique situations that will challenge the industry in unforeseen ways. For example, at this time last year, who would have guessed that oil would pump into the Gulf of Mexico for three months or that 33 miners in Chile would spend 69 days underground before being successfully rescued?

Sports such as college football provide helpful analogies for the value of selfless teamwork. It is no surprise that the best teams are usually the ones that have prepared a clear and well-practiced game plan. The same holds true for emergency management and the professionals who practice the craft, like well-trained athletes. To make 2011 a winning year, a game plan should be formulated and followed.

Game Changer: Social Media in Charge 

Although truly major changes in, or additions to, the Joint Commission Emergency Management Standards in 2011 are not expected, it is predicted that there will be myriad new demands on emergency managers. One of those demands will be to develop a viable social media strategy.

Private industry will necessarily be the forerunner in improving the coordination and valuable use of social media in conveying key messages. Emergency managers should watch this evolution closely, and carefully consider how to apply and validate the lessons learned during actual disasters or emergencies. (The Harvard Business Review recently published a very insightful article [see footnote 1 below] about using a central coordination point for ensuring effective use.)

Teamwork: It Takes a Village 

The H1N1 pandemic illustrated to many the importance of long-term partnerships. In support of this concept, in April 2010, Time Magazine [see footnote 2] reported on five lessons learned. Briefly summarized, those lessons were as follows:

1. The H1N1 global flu pandemic was more serious than the death toll suggested.

2. The pandemic you prepare for may not be the one you get.

3. Prevention means surveillance.

4. Vaccine manufacturing is outmoded – but vaccines are not a panacea.

5. It all boils down to communication and trust.

In almost every conversation in emergency-management circles, the single most common comment about H1N1 has been that “We were lucky.” Louis Pasteur once said that “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” More recently, Edna Mode (of The Incredibles) remarked that “Luck favors the prepared.” The consensus is clear, though: The emergency managers who endured “Pandemic Flu Planning Fatigue” in the past really benefited significantly from the plans and training exercises – which almost without exception were well written, implemented, and practiced.

One of the most beneficial aspects of those earlier efforts was the forced coordination with other community response agencies. Actually, in all of the federal grant programs in this area, community relationship building and collaboration continues to be one of the best outcomes provided by the funding – and serves as a critical tool for preparedness and response. Collaboration can enhance surveillance, better prepare communities for almost any hazard, and reinforce timely communications by building trusted relationships. Similarly, to continue the college football analogy, there is not a winning team in this year’s bowl games that does not recognize the value of excellent teamwork, communication, and coordination.

Third and Long: Do More with Less 

Looking ahead to 2011, it is not expected that any healthcare facility, agency, or organization will see significant increases in funding for hospital emergency management. However, this does not mean that emergency managers are limited in looking ahead and preparing for worst-case situations. At this year’s International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Administrator Craig Fugate focused on the need for communities to look internally for ways to improve their response capabilities. One example he provided was the strengthening of public-private partnerships. Instead of viewing business and industry simply as potential resources, he suggested, greater consideration should be given to them as valued response partners.

Another way to improve response capabilities is through the use of more effective exercises. Smaller exercises can improve community, regional, and statewide events. DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Janet Napolitano is among those who considered this approach one of the best ways to make national-level exercises more effective.

As well known executive-management author Peter F. Drucker said (in his book The Effective Executive), “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” By seeing the big picture, identifying priorities, and solving the highest-priority issues first, emergency managers stand a better chance of being successful. This year, to cite but one example, football coach Mike Gundy led the Oklahoma State team to the school’s first 10-win season ever. By relinquishing some control to his offensive and defensive coordinators, Gundy himself was able to see some critical adjustments that he might have missed otherwise. Subsequently, and not surprisingly, Coach Gundy was named by the Associated Press, and by his peers, as the “Big 12 Coach of the Year.”

In community planning meetings, emergency managers should follow Gundy’s example and review “the right things” that will make their own preparedness efforts more successful – and then practice those things to develop a winning strategy for planning, then achieving, their 2011 planning objectives and priorities. Time and time again, local and regional exercises, in a variety of different scenarios, have proved that the greatest success is achieved through exercises that: (a) Use effective and collaborative communication and messaging; (b) Are designed to elicit a multidisciplinary response by using well-established relationships with agencies and individuals; and (c) Have established clear objectives in advance that are both succinct and measurable (with tangible metrics).

It is recognized that the preceding suggestions are, for the most part, familiar ideas that seem to re-emerge fairly regularly. However, in 2011, all emergency managers should very carefully consider, yet again, how to integrate new technologies, relationships, experiences, and skills in their plans for resetting the preparedness bar. The great Joe Namath expressed it very well when he said, “Football is an honest game. It’s true to life. It’s a game about sharing. Football is a team game. So is life.” The same is true for emergency preparedness.


For additional information: 1. On the Harvard Business Review article, click here

2. On the Time Magazine article, click on “,8599,1985009-1,00.html”

Mitch Sawuwatari
Mitch Saruwatari

Mitch Saruwatari is vice president of quality and compliance at LiveProcess, and previously held key positions at Kaiser Permanente. He also has served as: Region I Disaster Medical and Health Specialist for the State of California; a member of the Los Angeles County Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Resources and Services Administration Bioterrorism Advisory Committee; a founding member of the California Disaster Interest Group; and as co-lead for development of the Hospital Incident Command System. In addition to his current position, he is an instructor at the Center for Domestic Preparedness. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Health and is working toward a doctorate from UCLA.



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