3 Steps to telemedicine disaster preparedness

It sometimes feels as if our country is mired in disaster. From Northern California to Puerto Rico, Houston to the Florida Keys, Americans have experienced an unprecedented string of calamities in the span of just a few months.

Amid the destruction and loss of life, telemedicine could and should be playing a larger role helping to treat victims in the field and during the recovery. Many forward-looking medical centers have begun to integrate telemedicine into their disaster preparations. But despite the technology’s proven ability to provide remote access to critical medical care during and after hurricanes, floods, fires and other disasters, those responsible for healthcare have not yet built telemedicine into their disaster plans. As a result, communities do not have access to a powerful, lifesaving tool.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

At least one government agency has proven that, with the right amount of planning and coordination, telemedicine can fit seamlessly into even the largest disaster recovery programs. The 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced early this year the availability of the first multinational, interoperable telemedicine program for disaster response. Its development by NATO required three years of rigorous testing and planning, beginning with the field testing of portable telemedicine units from GlobalMed in 2015.

The suitcase-sized units enable rescue workers to communicate via satellite with an international network of medical specialists to assess a patient, determine the diagnosis and provide real-time treatment recommendations. Remote specialists can access the patient’s ECG, vital signs, and perform a visual examination via camera. State-of-the-art patches can monitor a patient’s heart rate, skin temperature, and activity, as well as their location and body position.

Of course, few organizations have the resources of NATO. Lacking military-size budgets, local and state governments as well as many smaller hospitals and community health organizations may feel they can’t afford to build telemedicine into their disaster plans.

In that, they would be wrong.

Basic telemedicine services can now be affordably delivered to consumers using only a computer and a phone. Thousands of people used these basic telehealth services in Florida and Texas during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey to connect with physicians outside the storm-affected areas and receive rapid diagnoses and treatment recommendations.

Even the more advanced field- and clinic-based telehealth systems that can operate under severe conditions, without access to electricity or standard communications, are affordable for virtually any government or healthcare organization. That’s because the same technological advances that have exponentially increased the power of computers and lowered their cost over the last decade have also reduced the price tag for advanced telemedicine equipment and software. A telehealth system that cost $20,000 in 2010 can be bought today for one-tenth that amount, and it will come with faster speeds and far higher-resolution cameras and scopes.

If cost is not the limiting factor, then, why haven’t more local and regional jurisdictions adopted telemedicine within their disaster plans? The answer may be that they simply didn’t think it was realistic. Telemedicine has long suffered from misconceptions that have slowed its adoption. Common knocks on the technology are that it provides lower quality than in-person care; that it’s too technical, too expensive, and too impersonal. Just as with the cost issue, though, these views fail to hold up under inspection.

In fact, once adopted, telemedicine can actually lower costs, with the added benefit of preserving medical facilities in rural communities that would otherwise have closed their doors.

Moreover, by staying open, now equipped with new high-tech facilities, these clinics are also ideally situated to provide quick, localized medical assistance in case of hurricanes or other disasters. The University of Mississippi Medical Center’s success in bringing telemedicine to large swaths of rural Mississippi is an example of the type of public-private collaboration that’s needed to make the technology a standard part of disaster preparedness in jurisdictions across the country.

So how can your organization or healthcare providers in your region establish a telemedicine disaster preparedness program?

Steps to Telemedicine Disaster Preparedness

1. Acknowledge Telemedicine as a Standard of Care: The American Hospital Association, the American College of Physicians and the National Coalition on Health Care, among others, have all urged the federal government to declare telemedicine an integrated standard of care for people with health needs, not a separate path of care alongside traditional in-person visits. With that fundamental understanding, telemedicine would more easily become a natural part of the overall disaster planning of healthcare organizations and government institutions.

2. Establish tools and workflows before disaster strikes: By the time a disaster strikes, it’s too late to map out how, when, and where telemedicine can be used to help. Specific processes, tools and workflows should be put in place well ahead of time, so telemedicine is ready for use when it’s needed the most.

3. Engage with partners: Partnerships between public and private organizations is key to driving the widespread adoption of telemedicine. Prior to a disaster, for instance, partnerships with relief organizations, local and federal governments, and other emergency responders could lead to the use of telemedicine in schools, shopping malls, sports arenas and other sites that could be used as shelters in the event of a natural disaster. Ultimately, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) could adopt telemedicine and distribute equipment to shelters and other locations during and after disasters.

Larger-scale collaborations among telemedicine providers, healthcare organizations and emergency responders represent a key part of the future of disaster relief.

By the look of things, we haven’t seen the last of this year’s deadly wave of natural disasters. The time to act is now.

Gigi Sorenson is Chief Clinical Officer of GlobalMed, an international provider of telehealth solutions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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