In the Eye of a Hurricane: Making Connections during a Natural Disaster

George Gooch
George Gooch,
In the Eye of a Hurricane: Making Connections during a Natural Disaster

Hurricane Harvey poured 27 trillion gallons of rain over Texas, left 33 counties under federal disaster declaration and caused a total monetary loss of more than $75 billion. It also left an estimated 70,000 people in need of rescuing, 450,000 people in need of disaster assistance, and 30,000 people in need of shelter. Through all of the devastation and heartbreak, one thing that was not deterred, however, was the dedication of the healthcare community to rise to the occasion and do what was necessary to ensure that access to medical care was provided to those displaced by the storm. Healthcare technology played a role in that effort, and the Texas Health Services Authority’ (THSA) was pleased to demonstrate its commitment to the residents of southeast Texas.

At THSA, it has been our mission to promote, implement, and facilitate the secure electronic exchange of health information through our Health Information Exchange (HIE), privacy and security certification, and supporting programs. We do this by connecting healthcare entities within the state of Texas to one another—if a Dallas resident breaks a leg while vacationing in Houston, for example, their record is readily accessible to the Houston doctor.

In May of this year, at the end of a lengthy HIE business planning process, we made the decision to shut down the query-based functionality of HIETexas.

Three months later, the state of Texas was about to encounter one of its most catastrophic natural disasters. Shortly after Harvey made landfall, we received a phone call from Texas Health and Human Services asking us to immediately reactivate the query-based HIE in light of the anticipated medical needs of Texas residents. The storm was certain to displace Houston-area residents, and when they arrived in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, or other parts of the state, Harvey evacuees and their providers, would need access to the medical records an HIE can provide.

Without hesitation, we contacted InterSystems to reactivate the service as soon as possible. THSA HIE services were back up and running and able to re-establish connections to regional Health Information Exchanges in very short order.

The HIETexas services will remain temporarily following the storm to ensure patient care is continued and well-coordinated wherever needed. This disaster has illustrated that ready access to healthcare data is like air conditioning in your car: you never think about it until it’s absolutely necessary. We plan to conduct a full assessment of lessons learned during this natural disaster and the best path forward for patients and HIEs. I’m confident that we will continue to connect residents to their care providers, and those providers to the information they need when making critical care decisions.

I’d like to say since Harvey’s devastation the waters have subsided, but that’s not the case. We’ve since seen Hurricane Irma wreck the lives of thousands, only to be followed by Hurricane Maria and additional challenges. Thankfully, healthcare IT infrastructure is available and keeping pace with the forces of nature, and patients can rest assured that the THSA, as well as the entire healthcare industry, are working to ensure medical records will make it into the right hands at the right time.