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Safe & Ready

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s healthcare system remains in turmoil

By Michael Boardman, CEO, Readiness Associates

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally  

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally
 

According to a Harvard University-led study recently released by the New England Journal of Medicine, Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico’s healthcare system was especially catastrophic. Of the 4,600 deaths estimated by the study, “about one-third of the additional deaths arose from lack of access or delayed access to healthcare, most likely from infrastructure damage,” the Journal reported.

Maria devastated the U.S. territory’s infrastructure when it made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017. The massive storm caused some $90 billion in damages, leaving residents without water or electricity for an extended period. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without power nine months after the event.

Firsthand experience

In a piece he wrote June 5, 2018, in the Washington Post, Armando Valdés Prieto, a lawyer and political consultant in San Juan, related how he and his wife experienced firsthand the destruction wrought by Maria on Puerto Rico’s healthcare system. During the storm, his wife slipped, fell and wound up in the hospital.

“The hospital was already showing signs of just how woefully unprepared Puerto Rico’s health-care system was to face the unfolding emergency that Hurricane Maria’s winds, rains and floods had brought,” Valdés Prieto wrote.

Things only got worse after the storm. According to Harvard’s Dr. Satchit Balsari, as reported by the Journal, the future could bring more of the same.

Morbidity, mortality to grow

“Morbidity and mortality among those with chronic conditions will continue to grow as a significant feature of disasters, as so many are now dependent on electricity for their medical needs,” Balsari said. “Future disaster preparedness plans need to pay careful attention to the prolonged suffering and death caused by disruption in infrastructure and basic utilities.”

That’s an alarming prediction, and it underlines why the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made it mandatory in November 2017 for healthcare organizations to implement Emergency Preparedness Programs that include performing a risk assessment, developing emergency plans, communications plans, policies and procedures, and training and testing staff members to comply with the CMS rule.

Given the increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters, and the onset of the 2018 hurricane season, it becomes ever more urgent to prepare healthcare providers nationwide and stand ready to help them recover after these devastating events.

The annual toll

“Each year, the United States averages some 10,000 thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, 1,300 tornadoes and 2 Atlantic hurricanes, as well as widespread droughts and wildfires,” said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Healthcare organizations don’t have to negotiate this treacherous landscape alone. Instead, they should team up with emergency preparedness/response professionals who help them prepare for worst-case scenarios.