It has always been important for organizations that provide healthcare to vulnerable populations to have a strong emergency communications plan. Nursing homes, hospitals, and other long term care providers have often had emergency plans that range from informal to strictly regimented. Everyone is always grateful for the years that lack any sort of natural disaster or regional crisis, but that doesn’t mean anyone should become lax in ensuring that their emergency communications plan is thorough, up to date, easy to access, and simple to implement.
Just as the CDC is encouraging every American family to have a plan in case of a natural disaster, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have their own requirements for inpatient and outpatient healthcare providers. Here are the steps necessary to ensure that your Emergency Preparedness Plan is in line with federal requirements that went into effect in November of 2017.
Requirement #1: Clear Communication
Your communication channels must allow you to get in touch with everyone in your communications sphere, regardless of whether or not they are physically at your facility during the emergency. The multi-modal nature of your strategy must keep you in touch with everyone from staff and patients to families and contracted care providers.
You may know that your ideal situation is to send out an SMS text message to everyone in your master contact list, but what happens if cell towers are taken down by winds? An email can only be accessed by those with devices to view it and with access to the internet throughout those devices. A radio signal can only be picked up by the handful of people who maintain a radio for emergency communications. You should be sending information through as many channels as possible, as consistently as possible. In addition to texts and emails, you should be prepared to make phone calls, send automated desktop alerts, notify individuals through apps, and use things like RSS feeds and pagers.
Requirement #2: Chain of Command
‘Know your chain of command and stick to the protocol. Imagine that your region has just experienced a massive power outage due to severe weather. Who do you contact first? Local emergency personnel? On-call staff? Patients’ families?
In an urgent situation, you need to know exactly who to contact and in what order. This helps you avoid making decisions during the chaos that can come with an emergency situation. Don’t forget to keep your contact information linked with your Mass Notification System Account (MNSA) to get in touch with everybody you need to contact, in the right order, using the right protocols.
Requirement #3: Have a Contingency Plan
Develop a strong contingency plan that determines what your first response will be to each type of disaster or crisis, and what the back-up plans will be when you encounter any obstacles. These backup resources should be based on the needs of your patients, the risks associated with operating in your region, and the local emergency systems and networks in your area.
You will need to coordinate your patients’ care with; state and local health departments, emergency management and planning officials. This is the part of your plan that ensures that in an emergency, you are still providing healthcare, medication, food, water, shelter, and physical needs. Your contingency plan should also include systematically backing up your data and managing emergency alert processes.
Requirement #4: Intra-Facility Communication
Don’t forget to communicate and coordinate care with other healthcare facilities. We live in a nation that encourages independent thinking and rewards big ideas, but it is a poor strategy to try to manage an emergency on your own. CMS expects that you will be working in coordination with other providers and facilities in the area, especially in terms of responding to a major crisis.
Requirement #5: Understand Your Constituency
Know who your constituents are in a crisis and make sure you are aware of their needs, because it is your responsibility to respond to those needs. Constituents can include patients, families, healthcare staff, non-medical personnel, administrative staff, and, depending on your specific service, any number of other groups.
Key steps in managing constituents in an emergency:
- Assign facility and staff into manageable groups
- Assign coordinators/leaders in advance of the emergency, and make sure they are properly trained
- Identify and label important locations and evacuation points
- Maintain accurate employee lists
- Create ways for coordinators/leaders to be identified quickly and easily
- Refer to OSHA’s workbook on crisis accountability for more advice.
As you can see, emergency preparedness is not something that can be set aside or dealt with in the moment. You need a comprehensive communications plan and adequate training for those tasked with implementing it. The WatchPoint AtRisk Registry is a tool that Brightgray Solutions has developed to address these very needs.