Did EMRs Help Hospitals Hit By Hurricane Harvey?

Posted on September 5, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Over the next few days, it devastated communities from Florida to Texas, generating massive storm surges and triggering levee failures that drowned cities like New Orleans. It was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

At the time, virtually all healthcare providers used paper medical records, many of which were destroyed by flooding. According to an AHIMA article, the flood waters destroyed roughly 400,000 paper records, a catastrophic loss by any standard.

The situation wasn’t nearly as dire at facilities like Tulane University Hospital and Clinic, though. The New Orleans-based organization had implemented an EMR before the storm hit. In the trying weeks afterward, physicians at these hospitals had access to medical records, while many other hospitals were struggling to gather patient information for months or even years after Katrina.

Now, we’re facing the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which has all but submerged the city of Houston. Days after the storm’s peak, which dumped a record 51.88 inches of rain on Texas, roughly a third of the Houston area was covered in water, and Texas officials estimated that close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage.

During the worst of the storm, some 20 Houston hospitals transferred some or all of their patients to facilities outside of the area as water rose in their basements or levees seemed ready to burst. In its immediate aftermath, many of the area’s 110 facilities shut down outpatient services and canceled elective surgeries.

But despite the challenges they faced, the majority of Houston-area hospitals remained open for business.  One reason for their ability to function: unlike the hospitals battered by Katrina, they have EMRs in place. The area didn’t see any major power outages and the systems seem to stayed online.

It’s hard to say whether New Orleans would’ve fared better if the city’s hospitals had already implemented EMRs. Houston hospitals were apparently better prepared for hurricane flooding, having put a host of storm fortifications in place after Tropical Storm Allison wreaked massive damage sixteen years ago.

That being said, it seems likely that the EMRs have helped hospitals keep the doors open and keep caring for patients. If nothing else, they gave facilities a giant head start over New Orleans hospitals post-disaster, which in some cases had virtually nothing to go on when delivering care.

Of course, digital data offers some significant advantages over paper records of any kind, including but not limited to the ability to backup records to off-site facilities well out of a given disaster zone.  But organizing patient data in an EMR, arguably, offers additional benefits, not the least of which is the ability to access existing workflows and protocols. Few tools are better suited to capturing, sharing and preserving care records in the midst of a catastrophic event like Harvey.

Over the next few decades, some observers predict that care will become massively decentralized, with remote nurses, telemedicine and connected health doing much of the heavy lifting day-to-day. If that comes to pass, and health IT intelligence is distributed across mobile devices instead, the EMR of today may be far less important to healthcare organizations hoping to rebound after a disaster. But until then, it’s safe to say that it’s a good thing Houston’s hospitals don’t rely on paper records anymore.