Physician Practice

Make room for mental health in the aftermath of an emergency

Medical Environment Update, November 1, 2017

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Disasters can blur the lines between victims and responders, so don't overlook the psychological toll on your staff

A series of natural disasters struck Missouri in 2011. There were blizzards, flooding, and multiple tornadoes, including an EF-5 that inflicted severe damage on St. John's Regional Medical Center when it carved a wide path of destruction through Joplin.

The twister was blamed for 161 deaths, making it the deadliest on U.S. soil in 55 years and a case study in how a community's healthcare services can be impacted by structural and emotional damage alike. The lessons learned in the aftermath of that major catastrophe should be applied by healthcare organizations in response to disasters large and small, the Missouri Hospital Association (MHA) said in a report dissecting the emergency response.

Medical staffers working when a disaster strikes their local community are often themselves "victims who must respond," the report notes. That means adequate emergency preparedness should account for the likelihood that medical personnel will endure psychological effects of the disaster in the midst of their response and possibly for some time thereafter.

"Consider their immediate needs, including emotional support, personal loss and basic housing and supplies," the report advises. "The need for follow-up and perhaps ongoing emotional support and services is critical and should always be considered."

Organizations enrolled in the Medicare and Medicaid programs have until November 15 to comply with the CMS emergency preparedness rule, the final version of which was published in the Federal Register a year earlier. The rule includes requirements that apply to all 17 types of providers and suppliers, so it's crunch time for any participating organization that has yet to comply. (That includes clinics and doctor offices, too, not just large medical centers.)

“As people with medical needs are cared for in increasing-ly diverse settings, disaster preparedness is not only a re-sponsibility of hospitals, but of many other providers and suppliers of healthcare services. Whether it’s trauma care or long-term nursing care or a home health service, patients’ needs for health care don’t stop when disasters strike; in fact their needs often increase in the immediate aftermath of a disaster,” said Nicole Lurie, MD, MSPH, the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, in a statement released last year when CMS finalized its emergency preparedness rule. “All parts of the healthcare system must be able to keep providing care through a disaster, both to save lives and to ensure that people can continue to function in their usual setting. Disasters tend to stress the entire health care system, and that’s not good for anyone.”

This is an excerpt from a member only article. To read the article in its entirety, please login or subscribe to Medical Environment Update.

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