U.S. hospitals can't handle terror or disaster, report says

Accreditation group calls for community-based preparedness programs

March 12, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The group that accredits most American hospitals is calling for stepped-up efforts to prepare for a terrorist attack or other public emergency, saying that many health care organizations are already overburdened and don't have the funds to adequately respond.

In a report issued today, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations urges federal and state governments, health care institutions and other emergency services providers to implement community-based preparedness programs - before disaster strikes.

Don't wait too late

"At the time there is some community disaster, that's not the time for leaders in the community and health care and police and fire to start exchanging business cards. It's got to be done long before," said Joe Cappiello, the group's vice president for accreditation field operations.

"You can't prepare for everything, but you've got to be able to prepare for those things that are real," he said. "And you have to be able to anticipate what the health care system might be called on to respond to."

The goal, Cappiello said, is to create a "scalable community model" that hospitals can tailor to meet the needs of their respective populations - whether they're in Manhattan or Dubuque.

Everyday problems

Even without the responsibility of dealing with a potential attack, the report said, many hospitals are struggling with shortages of nurses, tighter budgets and high liability insurance premiums.

These have caused physicians in some states to walk off the job or medical centers to scale back services.

"All of these factors promise to further undermine the ability of hospitals to meet the routine, let alone the extraordinary, needs of their communities," the report concluded.

The report was based on input from a 29-member roundtable of experts convened by the commission, an Illinois-based nonprofit organization that accredits nearly 17,000 hospitals, health care programs and other providers.

Drawing blueprint

Dr. Helen Burstin, the lead for bioterrorism preparedness at the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and a member of the roundtable, said the report addresses questions ranging from what role hospitals will be expected to play in the event of a disaster to what it really means to be prepared.

"If you lay the blueprint of what that might be, you can adjust it to fit the more individualized needs of a given hospital and also a given community," she said.

Explained Cappiello: "I think the core theme of this whole thing is that America needs a robust health care system and that a robust health care system is essential to national security."

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