Creating an effective communication plan for your healthcare agency in case of an emergency isn’t just a best practice, it’s a requirement of doing business.
But what exactly is required in a communication plan? You could take a quick jaunt through the 186 pages of the communication plan rules. Or, if you don’t have the time or energy to work through those, you could read through the fundamentals here:
Fundamental #1: Knowledge of who your people are and how they can be reached
Your people here include your clinical and professional staff, your contractors, your volunteers, and your patients. If they are onsite, you need to know where they can be found. If they are away, you need to know how you can get in touch and where they live.
It is critical that you have a system in place to contact people quickly in order to ensure continuity of care for patients and they can be evacuated if necessary.
Fundamental #2: Multiple methods of communication
The CMS Communication Plan rule doesn’t require or endorse any particular communication system. Obviously, telephones are a natural option, but it can be a long process, especially since the Emergency Communication regulation calls for your list of critical care patients to be updated every two weeks.
Choosing an online process that automatically updates your At-Risk patient information to your local Emergency Responders is by far the best option. We recommend WatchPoint AtRisk Registry.
Fundamental #3: Create formalized relationships with community partners
The rule requires that healthcare providers work with federal, state, tribal, regional, and local emergency preparedness organizations, as well as other sources of assistance such as nonprofit organizations. State and local public health departments and emergency systems are also a key part of responding during an emergency.
Working together means not just knowing the contact information for these organizations and agencies, but also relationships. Having discussions about how you will coordinate your efforts in the event of an emergency is needed before disaster strikes, as there will not be any time for hashing out protocols in the moment.
An effective and well maintained communication plan will facilitate coordinated patient care across healthcare providers, and with state and local public health departments and emergency systems to protect patient health and safety in the event of a disaster.
Providers and suppliers are to have contact information for federal, state, tribal, regional, or local emergency preparedness staff and other sources of assistance. Patient care must be well coordinated across healthcare providers, and with state and local public health departments and emergency systems to protect patient health and safety in the event of a disaster.
Fundamental #4: Secure methods for sharing patient information with other health system
On an ordinary day, most patient data stays within a single system, and you can take the time to work out the kinks in sharing that information with other healthcare systems as challenges arise. In an emergency, when many patients may be arriving at a hospital that is not normally responsible care, this isn’t always the case. This is especially true if you should need to evacuate some or all of your patients, or should you need to accept evacuees from another facility.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services share a few examples of why this is so key
“Sharing patient information and documentation was found to be a significant problem during the 2005 hurricanes and flooding in the Gulf Coast states. In 2011, the ability to share information during the Joplin, Missouri tornado both electronically and via hard copy helped patient evacuations and continuity of care. In addition, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, some hospitals reported receiving evacuated patients from a nearby hospital with little or no medical documentation … In some cases, electronic medical records were unavailable and only oral patient histories could be provided. This lapse in medical documentation is detrimental to patient care.”
Patient information that might need to be shared includes their presence at the hospital, personal and demographic information such as their name, age, and address, as well as information on their medical condition. HIPAA rules must also be taken into account, including the possible necessity of sharing information with facilities that utilize electronic records as well as those that are still using paper systems. HIPAA is not voided during a state of emergency.
Facilities should also consider including in their communication plan information on what type of patient information is releasable and who is authorized to release this information during an emergency.
Fundamental #5: Acquire secure methods for sharing patient information with families
HIPAA and other privacy rules also have a major impact on another key part of an emergency communication plan, a plan for communicating with the families of patients. It’s important to consider in advance what kinds of patient information is shareable with family members, how it can be shared in a timely fashion, and who is authorized to release this information
It is also helpful to consider the impact of a shortage of chaplains and family-focused staff and volunteers in the event of a disaster, especially one in which a large number of deaths have occurred. Collaborating with other organizations with experience in disaster relief may prove to be a key part of an effective plan for communicating with patient families.
Fundamental #6: Knowledge of and compliance with local laws
HIPAA, of course, is the best-known patient privacy rule in the United States, but states and localities may also have additional, more stringent requirements. An emergency communication plan must be in compliance with all federal, state, and local laws.
The only way to abide by this rule is an up-to-date understanding of the laws that impact you and your health system. Keeping abreast of changes in the law and the ramifications for your own system is critical not only for day-to-day operations, but also for planning for emergencies.
Fundamental #7: Up-to-date information
Like laws, situations change. Hospitals grow, shrink, and reorganize. Technology advances. Priorities shift. This is why the rule regarding emergency preparedness requires that your communication plan be updated at least annually.
It is quite possible that large amounts of the plan will stay the same from year to year. Other parts, like contact lists, might need to be updated more frequently, or even on an ongoing basis with an annual audit for accuracy. Some situations might merit an immediate change in the plan, regardless of where it falls in the annual calendar, such as a transition from paper to electronic filing.
Nobody wants to think about disaster, but planning now brings peace of mind later.
Communication is at the heart of patient care. When your communication plan encompasses the worst possibilities as well as the best, you can move forward with confidence, knowing that you have the systems in place to carry out your mission, regardless of the circumstances around you.
Brightgray Solutions’ WatchPoint AtRisk Registry offers care providers a state-of-the-art solution to communicate information to necessary parties with lightning-fast speed and accuracy. Interested in seeing it in action? Click here for a free demo today.