Tagged Emergency Medicine

Hospitals’ Best-Laid Plans Upended By Disaster

It was 3:35 a.m. and flames from a massive Northern California wildfire licked at the back of a Santa Rosa hospital.

Within three hours, staffers evacuated 122 patients to other facilities — something they’d never come close to doing before. Ambulances sped off with some of the sickest patients; city buses picked up many of the rest.

With phone lines charred and communication restricted, doctors and nurses struggled to figure out who was sent where — forced to keep their wits even as some of their own homes burned and their families fled.

This was not exactly covered in their meticulously executed drills and disaster-preparedness videos.

“You never know how you’ll react until it comes your way … until fate taps you on the shoulder,” said Dr. Josh Weil, an emergency medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa who led the hospital evacuation operation on Oct. 9.

America’s hospitals were beset by an unusual number of calamities in 2017: The fires that raged in Northern and Southern California; hurricanes that displaced thousands in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico; the deadliest mass shooting in modern history that killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 others in Las Vegas; and the attack at a Bronx hospital in which a doctor turned a gun on his former colleagues, killing one and injuring six.

Across the country, natural disasters have become more frequent and more deadly; the carnage from mass shootings resembles that on a battlefield. In some cases, these crises are more severe and elaborate than most hospitals — particularly smaller ones — are prepared for, and experts say it is time to bring facilities up to speed.

“The probability that any individual hospital will be involved in an unusual event is increasing,” said Dr. Carl Schultz, professor emeritus of emergency medicine and public health at the University of California-Irvine. “All hospitals are potentially vulnerable,” he said, and “there is more pressure for hospitals to be prepared.”

That’s the case, he added, even though hospitals often lack the resources and funding to upgrade their disaster plans.

In the new year, hospitals that responded to outsized tragedies in 2017 are reassessing their plans in light of their painful experiences. Below are some instructive examples:

Keeping Track Of Patients

In Northern California, staffers from the Kaiser hospital in Santa Rosa rushed to clear out their wards as the ferocious Tubbs Fire approached. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

The original plan was to jot down details from each displaced patient’s identification bracelet so that the hospital could later confirm that patients arrived at other hospitals safely. But with the fire coming fast upon them, it became clear this would take too long, Weil said.

On the fly, one staffer suggested taking photos of patient wristbands with smartphones, he said.

“That was a brilliant idea that really saved us,” Weil said.

The hospital is now considering whether smartphones might be of greater use in future emergencies, or if there’s a more efficient way to track patients who must be rapidly whisked away.

Eight days earlier, another tracking issue surfaced at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas — this one concerning incoming patients. The facility was suddenly inundated by people shot or otherwise injured during the tragedy at the outdoor country music festival; 212 patients were admitted in a two-hour window, 124 of them with gunshot wounds.

Of those, 92 had no official photo identification on them.

Families dashed desperately from one hospital to another searching for their loved ones, said Alan Keesee, the hospital’s chief operations officer. Without IDs for patients, it was a challenge to confirm whether they were at the hospital, let alone whether they would be OK.

Enterprising staffers listed their unidentified patients’ physical traits and unique features, such as tattoos, to help match people with the descriptions family members provided. In turn, many relatives pulled up social media profile photos of their loved ones to give the hospital something to go by.

The chaotic process of patient identification exposed a desperate need for a centralized data hub where descriptions of unidentified patients in a massive emergency could be uploaded and accessed by all area hospitals, Keesee said.

And indeed, he said, his hospital is working with the Nevada Hospital Association and other local health agencies to determine whether the hub can be created.

Communication And Coordination

Last June, a former doctor stormed Bronx-Lebanon Hospital armed with a semiautomatic rifle.

Staff members had trained for just this kind of incident. But they had not anticipated how restricted their movements would be once police took over, said Dr. Sridhar Chilimuri, the physician-in-chief that day.

“Shooting victims need blood transfusions, so you need to get from the blood bank to the operating rooms quickly,” Chilimuri said.

But the hospital lockdown blocked access to elevators. Doctors and nurses also had to fetch surgical instruments and move patients, he added, but they couldn’t do so without approval from police.

Because it was an internal shooting, police had to clear staffers of suspicion before they could return to work — even the doctors needed for lifesaving operations.

The hospital has since updated its drills to include an accelerated process of police screening — targeting the medical staff most urgently needed — and its training videos now show an attacker armed with an assault weapon rather than a small handgun.

“Hopefully that will help us cut down on the time we are crippled,” Chilimuri said.

Running Low On Supplies

When Hurricane Irma barreled into South Florida in September, the 10 Tenet Health hospitals in the region felt ready.

They had beefed up their disaster plans after Hurricane Matthew landed a year earlier, said Cathy Philpott, a director of nursing practice and clinical operation for the hospital system. They also brought in staff from other states and rolled in backup generators, she said.

Even so, they faced an unexpected challenge: a shortage of platelets, cells that help the body form clots to stop bleeding.

Until sister hospitals in Boston could airlift platelets in, the hospitals had to work with local blood banks to conserve the supply and prioritize their use for trauma patients. When hurricanes are forecast in the future, the hospitals will reach out to local blood banks and host platelet drives as the storms approach, Philpott said.

“That’s the lesson learned,” she said.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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For Elder Health, Trips To The ER Are Often A Tipping Point

Twice a day, the 86-year-old man went for long walks and visited with neighbors along the way. Then, one afternoon he fell while mowing his lawn. In the emergency room, doctors diagnosed a break in his upper arm and put him in a sling.

Back at home, this former World War II Navy pilot found it hard to manage on his own but stubbornly declined help. Soon overwhelmed, he didn’t go out often, his congestive heart failure worsened, and he ended up in a nursing home a year later, where he eventually passed away.

“Just because someone in their 70s or 80s isn’t admitted to a hospital doesn’t mean that everything is fine,” said Dr. Timothy Platt-Mills, co-director of geriatric emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who recounted the story of his former neighbor in Chapel Hill.

Quite the contrary: An older person’s trip to the ER often signals a serious health challenge and should serve as a wake-up call for caregivers and relatives.

Research published last year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine underscores the risks. Six months after visiting the ER, seniors were 14 percent more likely to have acquired a disability — an inability to independently bathe, dress, climb down a flight of stairs, shop, manage finances or carry a package, for instance — than older adults of the same age, with a similar illness, who didn’t end up in the ER.

These older adults weren’t admitted to the hospital from the ER; they returned home after their visits, as do about two-thirds of seniors who go to ERs, nationally.

The takeaway: Illnesses or injuries that lead to ER visits can initiate “a fairly vulnerable period of time for older persons” and “we should consider new initiatives to address patients’ care needs and challenges after such visits,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Thomas Gill, a professor of medicine (geriatrics), epidemiology and investigative medicine at Yale University.

Research by Dr. Cynthia Brown, a professor and division director of gerontology, geriatrics and palliative care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, confirms this vulnerability. In a 2016 report, she found sharp declines in older adults’ “life-space mobility” (the extent to which they get up and about and out of the house) after an emergency room visit, which lasted for at least a year without full recovery.

“We know that when people have a decline of this sort, it’s associated with a lot of bad outcomes — a poorer quality of life, nursing home placement and mortality,” Brown said.

Other research suggests that seniors who are struggling with self-care (bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring from the bed to a chair) or with activities such as cooking, cleaning and managing medications are especially vulnerable to the aftereffects of an ER visit.

Why would seeking help in an ER often become a sentinel event, with potential adverse consequences for older adults?

Experts offer various suggestions: Seniors who were previously coping adequately may be tipped into an “I can’t handle this any longer” state by an injury or the exacerbation of a chronic illness, such as diabetes or heart failure. They now may need more help at home than what’s available, and their health may spiral downward.

Other possibilities: Seniors who fall and injure themselves — a leading cause of ER visits — may become afraid of falling again and limit their activities, leading to deterioration. Or, underlying vulnerabilities that led to an ER visit — for instance, depression, dementia or delirium (a state of acute, sudden onset confusion and disorientation) — may go undetected and unaddressed by emergency room staff, leaving older adults susceptible to the ongoing impact of these conditions.

In response to concerns about the care older adults are receiving, the field of emergency medicine has endorsed guidelines designed to make ERs more senior-friendly. With the rapid expansion of the aging population, which accounts for more than 20 million ER visits each year, “our traditional model of emergency medicine has to shift its paradigm,” said Dr. Christopher Carpenter, associate professor of emergency medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The guidelines call for educating medical staff in the principles and practice of geriatric care; assessing seniors to determine their degree of risk; screening older adults deemed at risk for cognitive concerns, falls and functional limitations; performing a comprehensive medication review; making referrals to community resources such as Meals on Wheels; and supplying an easily understood discharge plan.

Starting in February, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) is launching an accreditation program for emergency rooms, certifying at least a minimal level of geriatric competence — another effort to improve care and outcomes for older adults. Three levels of accreditation — basic, intermediate and advanced — will be offered.

For each of these levels, ERs will be required to provide walkers, canes, food and drink, and reading glasses to older patients. For intermediate and advanced accreditation, physicians will have to oversee improvement initiatives, such as limiting the use of urinary catheters in older patients. Also, changes to the ER environment such as nonslip floors and enhanced lighting will be required, along with amenities such as hearing devices, thicker mattresses and warm blankets.

Family members can also help older adults during and after a visit to the ER.

“My biggest piece of advice is get there and stay by their side throughout the experience, because things happen very quickly in emergency rooms, and these are difficult environments to navigate under the best of circumstances,” said Dr. Kathleen Unroe, associate professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Dr. Kevin Biese, chair of the board of governors for ACEP’s geriatric ER accreditation initiative, offers these recommendations:

  • Escape the crowd. “Ask for a room, instead of letting your loved one stay out in the hallway — a horrible place for seniors at risk of delirium. Tell staff, who may have put Mom in the hallway because she’s a fall risk and they want to keep an eye on her, ‘I’ll watch Mom and make sure she doesn’t get out of bed.’”
  • Supply a full list of medications. “And ask the doctor or nurse to make sure that your list is the same as what’s in [the hospital’s] computer. If not, have them update the computer list. Don’t leave without knowing which medications have been stopped or changed, if any, and why.”
  • Focus on comfort. “Bring eyeglasses and any hearing-assist devices that can help keep your loved one oriented. If you think Mom is in pain, encourage her pain to be treated.”
  • Educate yourself. “Know what happened in the ER. What tests were done? What diagnoses did the staff arrive at? What treatments were given? What kind of follow-up is being recommended?”
  • Communicate effectively. “Utilize teach-back. When the nurse or doctor says, ‘OK, you’re supposed to do this when you get back home,’ say, ‘Let me see if I understand. I hear you say take this medication on this schedule. Did I get that right?’”
  • Follow through. “Ask ‘How is Mom’s regular doctor going to know what happened here? Who’s responsible for telling him — do you make that call or do I? And how soon should we try to get in for a follow-up appointment?’”
  • Keep tabs on your loved one. Finally, “you need to see the few days after a visit to the ER as a time of critical importance, when increased vigilance is required. Arrange for some extra help if you can’t be around, even if only for a few days. Check in frequently on Mom and make sure her needs are being met, her pain is being adequately controlled and she’s not getting delirious. Does the plan of care that she left the ER with seem to be working?”

KHN’s coverage of these topics is supported by John A. Hartford Foundation and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

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