by Cathy Denning
RN, MSN, Senior Vice President, Sourcing Operations


The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been anything but merciful to the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico with the recent devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. While we had warning they were coming, other natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires can strike with little or no warning. Obviously, we can’t avoid natural disasters completely, but hospital leaders and staff must prepare for them.

Hospitals understand this – in fact, almost all of the nation’s hospitals (97.3 percent) have a plan for responding to natural disasters because holding natural disaster drills is a requirement for accreditation by The Joint Commission. This helps them prepare and simulate how they will maintain patient surge capacity, coordinate with the wider health and public safety communities, e.g. EMS, nearby hospitals, and ensure the safety of all patients and the hospital staff as well.

However, other areas tend to be overlooked, as hospitals focus more on how they will handle the patient crisis as it occurs. It might be weeks, months or even years before a natural disaster strikes, but it’s never too early to consider the following:

  1. Address operational vulnerabilities. Review electrical, water, HVAC and plumbing systems, fire protection systems and medical gases management. Consider implementing backups for each of these areas and especially for the electrical system, which must be able to generate power for critical operations for at least 96 hours.
  2. Install redundant communication capabilities. This refers to having multiple back-up communication modalities, such as two-way radios and fax machines, to take over if primary systems like overhead announcement and paging, nurse calls and in-building wireless phone functionalities are rendered unusable.
  3. Reduce energy needs. One effective method is to combine heat and power systems. Known as cogeneration, this process produces heat and electricity from a single fuel source, such as natural gas or biomass, and reduces strain on a hospital’s power source. Another way to conserve energy is by identifying low- or no-cost alternatives to energy-intensive operations, e.g. solar panels.
  4. Rethink design of medical space and facilities. This clearly is a long-term investment or project, but consider the benefit of protecting the integrity of a facility or space during the natural disaster. For example, after Hurricane Katrina rendered the Veterans Affairs medical facility in New Orleans non-operational, hospital administrators took an “upside-down” approach to its redesign, putting the emergency department, electrical units and generators, and kitchens on the higher floors.

At Vizient, we have seen many natural disasters create crises for our member hospitals. To help hospitals prepare, we offer preparation assessment tools and planning templates that help them identify areas of vulnerability and mitigate those risks. And when a crisis hits, we provide resources and facilitate communication between the hospitals and vendors so that obstacles to delivering patient care are minimized.

About the author. As senior vice president of sourcing operations, Cathy Denning has responsibility for the company’s capital, medical and surgical sourcing, distribution, contract process and technology, strategic programs, physician preference and supplier diversity operations. She uses her 32 years of progressive experience in the health care industry to provide strategic and operational leadership for many of the sourcing operations programs. Before joining Vizient, Denning was in clinical practice in the acute care arena as a staff nurse, unit manager and oncology clinical specialist. Her other experience includes clinical practice, market and program management and development, staff training, The Joint Commission and quality assurance program management, and corporate compliance auditing.

Published: October 11, 2017