University of South Alabama, Office of Public Relations
December 18, 2007
Contact: Jennifer Z. Ekman, USA Public Relations, (251) 460-6360
USA Center for Healthy Communities Helps
Health System Plan for Future Disaster

Analysis of Hurricane Katrina To Help Patients

The University of South Alabama Center for Healthy Communities wants to help the health care infrastructure improve its efficiency and effectiveness for patients after natural disasters using lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina.

The USA Center for Healthy Communities, working with the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Regional Coordinating Center for Hurricane Response, has studied the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina in order to find ways to limit gaps in health care after storms. The researchers focused on patients from Alabama and Mississippi who suffer from chronic conditions. After analyzing critical chronic disease and disease management, they sought ways a community-based network might address those needs.

Their suggestions included patients carrying information about their medicine and stocking extra supplies. Health systems should prepare for disasters by making plans for staffing and volunteers, insuring adequate stock of medications, and formulating detailed operational plans to sort and distribute incoming medications and supplies. Meanwhile, communities should support electronic medical records, a sustainable workforce and a strong corps of volunteers.

They discussed their findings at a Dec. 17 press conference in the College of Medicine. Representatives from the USA Center for Healthy Communities, Morehouse School of Medicine, and both Mississippi and Alabama health care and emergency preparedness organizations were available for interviews.

The research was funded by a $50,000 grant from the Morehouse School of Medicine Regional Coordinating Center for Hurricane Response, through funds provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, with support from the National Institutes of Health, National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

“We sought to formally document and analyze the experiences of institutions and individuals in Mississippi and Alabama who had to struggle to provide health care both to local patients and to thousands of displaced individuals, even in the face of tremendous damage to the health care infrastructure,” said Dr. Martha Arrieta, the project’s principal investigator and research director for the USA Center for Healthy Communities.  “Continued health care provision to patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, etc., is of critical importance because disruption of medical care, coupled with the shock and major stress associated with facing a disaster, can lead to both short- and long-term disease complications for those patients.”

Dr. Errol Crook, co-investigator in the study and chairman of the department of medicine at USA College of Medicine, said, “By systematically documenting experiences of health care providers, administrators, pharmacists, and community-based support organizations in the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, we were able to identify the critical chronic disease management challenges experienced post-storm.”

According to Crook, major problems faced included: inadequate pre-storm preparation; lack/loss of medical and prescription medication records; insufficient patient knowledge of their chronic disease medications; regulatory, financial and insurance barriers to medication purchase; inadequate and/or insufficient medication supplies; and lack of an effective structure to coordinate internal and external operations and support.

Participants in the study also identified elements of a community-wide network that should be developed and strengthened to successfully function in the aftermath of a disaster.

“Networking prior to the occurrence of a disaster is crucial,” said Dr. Marjorie Icenogle, co-author of the study and chair of the management department at the USA Mitchell College of Business. “Health care and relief organizations should insure that they have fully articulated disaster plans, and those are shared and coordinated between institutions, and also communicated to the public.

Rachel Foreman, who managed the analysis of data and reporting of results for the study, said study participants indicated that reliable communications were a major issue after the storm. Other key actions include effective coordination of incoming relief organizations to work alongside indigenous health care providers, and the adequate collection and distribution of incoming medications and medical supplies.

“We plan to continue to identify and disseminate strategies and processes that will insure patient care is not disrupted in the aftermath of a disaster,” Arrieta added.  “Within our newly funded Center of Excellence for Partnerships, Outreach and Research Training in Health Disparities (EXPORT), we will strive to enhance partnerships among health care organizations in the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, and extend those to include health care providers in the Florida Panhandle. We believe we can have a major impact in helping institutions along the Gulf Coast be better prepared to adequately provide for the health care needs of local and displaced patients after a major disaster.”

Dr. Harvey White, director of the USA Center for Healthy Communities, said, “The Center for Healthy Communities is committed to helping individuals and organizations learn from the Katrina disaster and become better prepared for future challenges they might face. To act on the lessons learned from Katrina will require education to improve disaster planning at the patient and provider levels, economic development to improve community resilience, further research on health disparities and enhanced public health initiatives in each of those areas.”

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