September 05, 2017
The catastrophic flooding of the hurricane Harvey in Texas has left us mouth-open and heart-stricken over the loss of lives and billions of dollars’ - worth property in a flick of time. Lifelong investments were all lost in the disaster that was least expected to occur after 12 years of peace since the Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Catastrophic disasters are the worst nightmares that a person can face. A person owning million-dollar properties and a large family can easily be a lone survivor with nothing but the clothes he’s wearing as the only belonging. Worse still, the survivor will often have psychological injuries or mental challenges such as PTSD and depression. While seeking medical attention is the most paramount thing for catastrophic survivors, losing all medical records in the raging waters is more devastating. The flooding waters soak the paper documents while our PCs and backup systems are inaccessible or swept away.
While Hurricane Katrina gave a lot of lessons on disaster preparedness and management, which saved more lives in the Hurricane Harvey disaster, there is a lot that we need to do regarding storage and accessing medical records of American citizens throughout the country. A patient’s medical history is important when the patient is seeking treatment for doctors to offer the correct diagnosis and medication. While in normal circumstances we can avail the medical records once we visit health care centers, in times of catastrophe, it is different. Access to these records is a challenge, and we have witnessed this among the Harvey evacuees. Thousands of the evacuees’ medical history could not be traced by the emergency medical service providers or in the healthcare centers they visited away from their localities.
In this era of digitization, the idea of lacking access to patients’ medical records from any point in the country is pathetic. Unlike in the Hurricane Katrina where only a quarter of health facilities had electronic medical data storage, today more than three-quarters of healthcare centers in Houston and many other parts of the country use electronic data storage. The federal project EMS (Electronic Medical Records) birthed with the noble idea of sharing medical records of patients through health facilities is inefficient and poor in times of disasters. The access to the data stored in the EMS systems has been a hard nut to crack due to the brick wall protection of the data. Layers of security keep the emergency caregivers unable to reach the data in these critical times.
Challenges to access patients’ documents in the times of calamities and emergencies are not something new, and the health sector has made attempts to resolve this issue. However, the system requires reasonable efforts to ensure an effective system is in place before any other disaster strikes as a take home message from Hurricane Harvey medical nightmares. PULSE (Patient Unified Lookup System for Emergencies) is one of the noble solutions that can to enable sharing of information for patients in times of emergencies. The innovative system currently under test in California seeks to bring together all medical history of an individual in one portal. The government will then activate the portal in times of emergencies, such as hurricanes, earthquakes or other catastrophic events. With PULSE system, the emergency medical caregivers could easily reach the patient medical history such as major illnesses, recent tests and medication, allergies and so on, thereby guaranteeing safe medication.
The idea of PULSE system to create a data-sharing network was initiated in 2014. With almost three years gone with no practical application of the system, the government needs to quicken its pace. It is the high time we give a lot of attention to the project to ensure the system starts working in all the states in the next twelve months. With such an active system, there would be no worry of health records people leave behind in cases of disasters which happen unannounced in most cases sweeping everything in their path. This would, therefore, the most valuable lesson we have learned concerning disaster preparedness from Hurricane Harvey.