Boston Marathon bombing response shows importance of healthcare IT
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Boston Marathon bombing response shows importance of healthcare IT

For a healthcare organization to respond effectively to a catastrophe, IT systems and staff have to be running at maximum efficiency. No one can truly anticipate a disaster, but technology can help organizations be prepared to respond. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, healthcare IT professionals should reassess the usefulness of their current strategies and solutions.

John Halamka, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), recently reflected on the lessons he learned firsthand during the past week in a Computerworld article. When bombs detonated by the race's finish lines, he and his staff had to act quickly to enable doctors to provide urgent care, and he found that there were several scenarios that occurred that he had never considered previously. Halamka explained that one major problem his team faced was coping with circumstances that greatly limited doctors' and IT employees' ability to work with data. When the city was locked down by officials, he found that his plan to limit remote access to certain applications and networks may have been short-sighted.  Halamka realized that future disaster recovery strategies should include emergency plans to ensure telework is possible when necessary.

In addition, Halamka pointed out that these events highlighted the need for improvements to electronic medical records systems. As a large number of patients flooded in to Boston hospitals like BIDMC, physicians needed to make swift decisions regarding how to provide optimal care. However, in some cases, they faced challenges due to the lack of an effective healthcare information exchange system. Instead of being able to quickly obtain data from patients' primary care providers, many emergency specialists needed to make decisions despite a lack of access to complete records.

Halamka said The Massachusetts Healthcare Information Exchange (the MassHIWay) is currently working on improving inter-hospital file sharing. If medical organizations are able to communicate certain data – with the consent of patients – among themselves, they may be able to make more informed decisions about urgent treatment. He explained that the infrastructure to support the systems proposed by the MassHIWay should be in place by the second quarter of 2014.

Marla Durben Hirsch, editor of FierceEMR, also stressed that the Boston Marathon bombings highlighted the need for advancements in healthcare IT, especially in terms of data sharing. While she acknowledged that many area medical professionals credited technology, from disaster recovery solutions to social media, with helping them cope with the influx of patients with serious injuries, she also asserted that greater interoperability could have made the situation go much smoother. For instance, Durben Hirsch said, doctors could have benefited from knowing each victim's allergies, blood type and previously existing conditions.

Having strong healthcare IT solutions in place is about much more than convenience. While it's true that electronic health records can help reduce unnecessary work and save money over the long term, they can also be the difference between positive and negative medical outcomes. For doctors to save lives, especially in cases of unexpected catastrophe, the industry must develop even more advanced techniques that give practitioners all the tools they need to succeed.