Insight: Sandy shows hospitals unprepared when disaster hits home

Sat Nov 3, 2012 2:11pm EDT
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By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Kim Bondy was in New Orleans seven years ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and scores of patients died in flooded hospitals cut off from power. She never thought that she might face that danger herself.

But on Monday night, as superstorm Sandy submerged parts of New York City, Bondy was one of 215 patients evacuated from New York University's Langone Medical Center after basement flooding from the East River cut off its electricity.

"Knowing everything that happened in New Orleans hospitals, I'm thinking, 'I am not going to be that story,'" said Bondy, 46, a New Orleans resident who was hospitalized in New York over the weekend with a blocked intestine. "Did you not pay attention to what we learned from Katrina?"

The equipment failures at NYU and nearby Bellevue Hospital, the nation's oldest and one of its busiest, brought to the fore what emergency experts have warned for years. Despite bitter lessons from the recent past, U.S. hospitals are far from ready to protect patients when disaster strikes their facilities.

"I've been asking hospitals to look at their own survivability" after a natural or manmade disaster, "and I just can't get it on their radar screens," said Dr. Art Kellerman, an expert in emergency preparedness in healthcare at the RAND Corp. "If you asked me the one city in America that has its act together, I would have said New York. That tells you how much trouble we're in Dayton and Detroit and Sacramento."

For most hospitals, "emergency preparedness" means being ready to treat a surge of patients from an earthquake or terror attack - disasters outside their walls. Even the federal program that coordinates hospitals' preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services has this mindset: it focuses on planning for mass fatalities and quickly reporting their number of available beds, not having redundant electrical systems.

When the next Katrina or Sandy strikes, "we're going to have the same problems," warned a scientist who has led studies on hospital preparedness at a leading research institution. He asked not to be named so as not to antagonize hospital officials and others he works with.

For hospital administrators trying to keep their institutions in the black, disaster-resistant infrastructure is expensive and lacks the sex appeal of robotic surgery suites and proton-beam cancer therapy to attract patients.   Continued...