Hospital CIOs on HIE, EHRs in storm Sandy

By Erin McCann
08:53 AM

With the support of health information technology, astute preparation by staff and, yes, even a little good old-fashioned luck,some hospitals and health systems along Hurricane Sandy’s path emerged from the storm relatively unscathed.

Officials at Atlanticare, one of New Jersey’s largest healthcare systems, based in Galloway and Atlantic City, N.J., cite early preparation among IT and safety staff as key to surviving this kind of storm. 

“I had actually been tracking the weather the week prior,” Debra Fox, chief safety office at Atlanticare, tells Healthcare IT News. “Thursday is actually when we initiated our planning and communication to the leadership around beginning to put their operational preparedness plans in place,” she adds. This included topping off generator fuel and ensuring that the facility is able to withstand a loss of power.

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Christopher Scanzera, vice president and CIO at Atlanticare adds that IT staff communication and responsiveness across the health system was key to keeping things up-and-running.

“We have an IT command center that we opened up, staffed with about a dozen people, and basically the responsibility there is to monitor and respond to any system-related outages,” he says. “We had staff in each of the campuses both from a user standpoint and from a technical support standpoint in the event there were any outages that need to be addressed.”

Scanzera says that, due to the diligence of staff, there was no interruption of service in 98 of the 100 sites he is responsible for. In the data center, he mentions there was power outage from Monday into Tuesday, but no interruption of service occurred.

“To only to have had to wait 24 or 48 hours to get the last two [sites] back online, given what you see out there in terms of the devastation, I think we’re very fortunate,” says Scanzera.

Atlanticare’s clinical information system, patient financial management system and all the administrative systems were uninterrupted at all points during the storm, he adds.

When asked about whether or not health information exchange is important in a crisis like this, Scanzera says, “Yes and no.”

“When you’re in the middle of a storm, and you’re treating patients emergently, to have access to the information, yes, would be helpful, but really quite frankly, the focus is on treating the patients and moving them through in that emergent situation,” he says.

[See also: Sandy hammers Northeast, hospitals hurting in aftermath]

Officials at Philadelphia, Pa.-based Einstein Healthcare Network also cite staff preparation as a crucial element to survive the storm.

"On the days leading up to the storm, we took the warnings very seriously," Ken Levitan, vice president and CIO at Einstein Healthcare Network, tells Healthcare IT News. "Through network-wide meetings, employee updates and constant communications with leaders and staff throughout the network, we were able to ensure that clinical staff, and support staff, such as the IT, was available and prepared at each Einstein campus."

"We printed hard copies of our electronic health record and ran reports so clinical information was available in the event of a system outage," Levitan adds. "IT staff also ensured that all of the local 'disaster' workstations were in good working order. We utilize these local workstations during downtimes, planned or unplanned. They provide access to clinical information (EHR and PACS) imaging in a view-only state."

Levitan says none of the Einstein Healthcare Network facilities experienced flooding, and no patients had to be transferred during the storm. Two hospitals, Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park and Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, did lose power, but it "was never disrupted at either facility as it was immediately transferred to their emergency generators," he adds. All of the health IT systems were fully functional during the storm.

Officials at the 431-bed West Islip, N.Y.-based Good Samaritan Hospital hoped for the best but prepared for a worst-case scenario.

The hospital location, situated on the south shore of Long Island, less than a mile from the ocean, gave officials enough reason to worry.

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“We are very prone to flooding, so that was a big concern for us,” Theresa Jacobelis, spokesperson for the hospital, told Healthcare IT News.

Before the storm hit, hospital staff evacuated some 60 patients to other Catholic Health Services hospitals. Come 7:00 p.m. Monday evening, the power went out, and flooding was anticipated.  

“As it turned out, we were very fortunate. We didn’t have any flooding issues whatsoever,” adds Jacobelis, who says the water rose to the beginning of the hospital’s rear parking lot.

She also says the fact that the hospital has yet to go live with its electronic medical record system, which is slated to be up-and-running March 9, could very well be a “blessing in disguise.” Hospital officials are accustomed to working with paper records, so there was no transition when they lost power.     

Tuesday morning, the hospital started taking patients back. “We’re still in that restoration mode,” says Jacobelis.

Having survived the storm, Good Samaritan officials are now talking about the possibility of taking in some patients who are being evacuated from New York City Hospitals.