Telemedicine and Disasters

Telemedicine and Disasters

Within the last couple of months, the US and the Caribbean have been hit with several massive natural disasters.  These include hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; and the wildfires in California.  There have been earthquakes in Central and South America and the annual monsoons in East Asia.  These events have caused severe destruction of flora, fauna, shelter, and loss of life in multiple regions worldwide.  Mass shootings and terrorist attacks are also disasters that we are more frequently having to experience.


In all of these situations, health and safety of human life is the highest priority.  While emergency personnel do their utmost to ensure safety before, during, and after events; technology has increasingly found an important place in disaster management.  Traditional communications like radio and television are mainstays, however the ability to send alerts to the popualtion via cellphones is changing the face of disaster planning and management.


While residents can be warned of an impending disaster, and they can make plans to secure their lives, homes, and belongings; many times the aftermath of these disasters cannot be planned for.  This can last from days to years as in the case of hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005.  Even today there are residents who have never returned to the city.  In 2005, Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) were just becoming mainstream, however some physicians were already keeping electronic records in a limited manner.  This record keeping was a life saver for many patients who lost their homes, re-located, or whose providers’ offices were destroyed during the disaster.  Megan Molteni compared the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005 to that of hurricane Harvey in 2017 when only 25% of the country’s providers were using EMRs.  By contrast, due to the increased usage of EMRs, patient information is now accessible at the touch of a button.


We can compare the increase in EMR adoption to the significant increases in technology to include advances in telemedicine and telehealth.  Smartphones and tablets can be used to access patient health information which can prove to be lifesaving.  Displaced residents can contact their provider or healthcare facility to access their medical records.


Some uses of Telemedicine in disasters


  • When prepping for an impending disaster, many people who use prescription medication can contact their provider, pharmacy or health insurer to ensure they have a 3 month supply of medication.


  • Patients can communicate with their providers to ensure previously scheduled procedures are re-scheduled and other accommodations made. Telemedicine allows these tasks to be done remotely.


  • Telemedicine can be used to triage those with injuries or illnesses without having them leave their home in the middle of a storm. Asynchronous communications where text, pictures and video can be sent with intermittent cellphone coverage is important.


  • In some instances, a provider can coach a person onsite for an injury and take steps to treat an illness.  This can be done remotely as long as there is access to power and internet.


  • In the midst of an event like a mass shooting, telemedicine can provide the necessary triage among providers as well as psychiatric counseling.


  • When emergency and healthcare personnel are most needed; telemedicine can be an additional resource to lighten the load for providers. With telemedicine, providers from all over the country or the world can easily be accessed via the internet to assist with triaging, as well as providing virtual services like counseling and case management.


  • The aftermath of disasters can last for years. This can burden a local healthcare system especially in a situation like the one recently experienced in the Caribbean and the southern USA with back to back devastating hurricanes.  Telehealth can provide much needed support to local providers for an indefinite time frame.  Given that these resources are virtual, the cost to provide them may be considerably less than bringing staff in to the affected areas.


As we move forward and technology continues to improve and expand, there are numerous gains to be had by using telemedicine and telehealth before, during, and after all types of disasters.

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