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Disasters and nursing: Are you ready?

In an era where the effects of a warming climate are apparent every day, natural disasters are on the rise—including coastal storms, blizzards, flooding, prolonged droughts, and wildfires. What does this mean for nurses and the organizations that employ them?

Natural disasters come with great unpredictability and power, leaving people unprepared and in shock after seeing the damage they produce. In addition to treating patients, nurses and their healthcare organizations have found themselves in a position of providing shelter and basic needs for many local residents.

Guidelines for Disaster Preparation

Put Backup Systems in Place

In order to prepare for disasters of all sorts, it’s important that healthcare organizations have a disaster plan that is well documented and that nurses and their colleagues practice the steps they each will take. During disaster scenarios, performing typical procedures such as looking up patients in the master index may not be possible, especially if there is a power outage causing IT system failure or when a patient is brought in unconscious and alone.

The most important piece of disaster preparedness is making sure that new patients are properly taken care of, from diagnosis through to treatment and follow-up. For this to happen, nurse executives and other administrators must create a reliable method of entering the patient into the organization’s system, such as a manual numbering system. Patient access and financial services personnel will be able to follow up once the crisis has subsided.

Collaborate with Your Colleagues

Staffing needs will increase during a disaster. A properly prepared disaster plan for a healthcare organization includes having access to a backup or reserve medical, nursing, and administrative staff network. The credentialing committee can implement a policy granting temporary privileges during emergency or disaster situations.

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The intensity of patient care activities during this time may be much closer to that of an emergency department than a typical patient care floor. Consequently, nurse educators and other instructors should provide advanced training to prepare all personnel.

Key staff members, such as nurse managers, should be assigned specific tasks during disaster situations. Their primary responsibilities are to keep processes flowing as smoothly as possible, handle press requests, mitigate infrastructure and device outage issues, keep patients and family members as calm as possible, and make sure patients are getting the care they need.

Disasters can bring out both the best and the worst in people. The best happens when nurses and their colleagues work in concert to help each other and their patients. The worst is the panic that can overcome many people, leading to irrational behaviors. This is where training comes in to help settle the chaotic atmosphere.

Prepare, Plan, Practice, Repeat

Advanced planning and practice is necessary so that when an emergency arises, nurses and other providers are prepared for it. Walking through an emergency operations plan in advance of a real situation enables personnel to identify problems that could occur during a real disaster and allows for further refinement of the processes.

The reality is that emergency preparedness efforts tend to be underfunded, losing out to budget needs for patient care and billing. So nurse executives should consider allocating funds in advance for additional resources during disasters. Think outside the box when anticipating needs. For example, if the area is flooding and water has been contaminated and the power is off for a lengthy period, local residents may depend on the nearest hospital to provide for their basic needs—especially if that hospital is one of the highest points in the area. This may require bringing in a tractor-trailer with a tank full of water. Disaster planning should also include situations where the healthcare facility itself is the victim of a disaster rather than the place where victims can come for treatment and refuge.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and The Joint Commission have set forth requirements that your organization should consider as it develops its plan. The Office of Emergency Preparedness of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a vast database of resources available for preparedness and disaster response planning, as does the American Hospital Association.

Taking steps now to prepare for an emergency operations plan will pay off for you and for all involved. Because it’s not if—it’s when.

The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our degrees are offered online, with optional on-campus immersions* and an annual interprofessional trip abroad. Role specialties include Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Nurse Educator,** and Nurse Executive. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Complete coursework when and where you want—and earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.

*The FNP track includes two required hands-on clinical intensives as part of the curriculum.

**The Nurse Educator role specialty is not available for the DNP program.

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