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Sense of Community: How Important are Disaster Plans in Hospitals?

After St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado on May 22nd, staff knew what to do.  That’s because drills, which may have seemed an inconvenience at the time staff had to participate in them, had been conducted over and over.

Last week, representatives from the Missouri Hospital Association, St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin and other area hospitals that make up Region D gathered in Springfield to see what they could learn from what happened in Joplin.

Russ Conroy, emergency preparedness coordinator for St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield, says one of the conclusions of that meeting was how important disaster plans are for medical facilities…

"I firmly believe that, if there hadn't been planning and drills, that the loss of life would have been significantly greater than it was.  Now, any loss is terrible but we could have had significant more loss of life if plans had not been practiced and implemented when they were, especially in the area of evacuation from the hospital."               

The Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation, the standard for many hospitals, checks medical facilities in all areas of care, but one full section is committed to having an emergency plan in place, practicing it and having it up to date at all times.

St. John’s in Joplin has plans in place and conducted regular drills before the tornado hit.  Dennis Manley, director of quality and risk management for the hospital, says that played a key role when the real disaster struck…

"I think when you practice those types of drills, then when the real thing happens, then staff know what to do, and so it certainly provides good assistance, and when you drill you always learn something so you can put those things into practice as well when the actual event occurs."               

183 patients were evacuated in 90 minutes the night of May 22nd.  Manley says they used a little bit of everything to move patients down stairs including med sleds, backboards, mattresses and wheelchairs.

Manley says not having a disaster plan in place likely would have resulted in chaos…

"And I did not see any chaos that night during the evacuation, and staff were calm--there wasn't any hysteria, and they were reacting and taking care of things appropriately, and I think that comes from having the plans in place and staff knowing what to do."

CoxHealth is continuously looking at its disaster plans to see what could be done differently.  An emergency management committee meets monthly at Cox and works with educational services to relay information to employees.

Jason Henry is the emergency management officer at Cox.  He says it’s critical to have a plan in place so everyone knows what to do if disaster strikes…

"If all the players involved don't understand and aren't aware that we have a plan in place, then you might get a lot of people that are wanting to do the right thing, but they may be going in a different direction than some of the other people, and so want them all to go in the same direction."               

Part of the plan involves helping other hospitals if they become disabled, which is what happened on May 22ndin Joplin.  He says they were able to put their plan into practice during that time and found that it worked…

"That has helped us solidify that we are we are on the right approach, we're on the right track, we're looking at the things that we need to be looking at."               

From the moment the tornado hit in Joplin, Henry says Cox staff members were on the phones trying to find out what was going on.  They activated their incident command and pulled in key senior leaders to start assessing the situation to see what they could do to help.  Cox operated in incident command the first week after the tornado hit.

Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar has several plans in place to deal with a disaster and COO Jeff Miller says they do lots of training with their employees…

"We actually work very closely with the Missouri Hospital Association.  They put on multiple education programs whether it be a seminar or webinar and we make sure to include our employees in that training so that they're very well and updated on the plan."               

He says they conduct routine drills throughout the healthcare system so employees can practice various scenarios that may occur.

He says one thing they learned from what happened to St. John’s in Joplin is that staging, planning and preparation are extremely crucial…

Area hospitals know they can learn a lot from what happened to St. John’s in Joplin, and they are looking at making modifications to their disaster plans if need be.

Dr. Sean Smith is a physician with St. John’s in Joplin.  He says the biggest thing hospital employees should learn from the tornado is to pay attention during drills…

"Practice does make perfect.  Nothing can ever prepare you for what happened here--it was the single worst tornado in history, but by practicing and going through drills and working with your EMS units and those systems, you can have somewhat of a preparedness for it because, although it is chaos, it is controlled chaos if you practice it."               

Smith says he’s impressed by how all the hospital staff and members of the community came together the night of May 22ndto help the victims.

For KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Michele Skalicky.