Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Using information technology for disaster preparedness - what does it mean and how will it prepare you?

Author: Farah Chery M.D.

Disasters come in all forms, whether devastating natural forces, a catastrophic nuclear accident, or an act of mass violence. The title question is an unfair one as the answer is different for every person and every situation. I am a family physician practicing in California where earthquakes of varying intensity occur frequently. Because of this I think about disaster preparedness on almost a daily basis, but in reality I know that I am not as prepared as I should be

Disaster preparedness involves several stages, including preparation for potential disasters as well as responding to the aftermath. From a physician's standpoint, the first step of disaster preparedness is knowing the potential threats to that specific community. In terms of natural disasters one must be familiar with specific geographic features such as proximity to fault lines and fire prone brushland. In addition to understanding the threats that can impact a community, organizational response units such as hospitals, clinics and urgent care centers should have several weeks of medical supplies. A third step is the integration of local health organizations with non-health related national organizations such as the American Red Cross. Finally, every family should have an individualized plan for responding to a disaster. This may include knowing the warning systems in your community, designing an escape route in your home, agreeing on a meeting place, and preparing an emergency supply kit.

Information technology such as the internet does play an important role in disaster preparedness. This role is particularly important in the third step of disaster preparedness planning where healthcare organizations must link up with non-health organizations as the scope of disaster can potentially exceed the capacity of the health care systems already in place. The health and non-health organizations link up by using an information system that is capable of both identifying and accessing information on local and national suppliers of disaster related services. The internet provides real-time information-sharing among the disaster responders. It can provide current and accurate information about accessing medical equipment suppliers, transportation services, emergency housing, health facilities, and public health data. Also, individuals can obtain emergency information such as evacuation instructions. However currently many aspects of information gathering and sharing are only attainable through more informal systems such as hard copies of compiled data. There are no centralized information sharing systems that all responders, regardless of their association or location, can access. Ideally, such a system would provide both on and offline access to a central server and database repository over the internet. The end goal being that members of the community will maintain and update disaster related information for their localities. Pilot studies such as one conducted by the University of Miami have proven to be promising tools for strengthening disaster responsiveness.

From the utilization of a central disaster database to the making of prototypic robots that survey and analyze disaster scenes, disaster preparedness is taking on a new definition. But despite technology's reign in every aspect of our lives the true answer to preparing for disasters is having a personal plan. There are many variables that arise during an emergency. The role of preparation is to minimize these uncertainties.

This was written by Farah Chery M.D.

Dr. Chery is a freelance writer whose current focus is medical mission work in Haiti.

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