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New toolkit helps standardize disaster-response initiatives

May 2009

Published in the May 2009 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

SINCE THE EVENTS OF 9/11, disaster-response planning has become a priority for hospitals everywhere. But experts in the field say that the science behind those efforts often leaves much to be desired.

A big problem with these hospital initiatives, particularly the disaster-response exercises that grab headlines, is a lack of standardized methodology to help structure and evaluate those efforts. That means that hospitals have to spend their own limited resources figuring how to develop and implement such drills.

To help standardize the process, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has introduced a 55-page toolkit that outlines an evidence-based approach to disaster-response exercises.

The toolkit is complete with modules that spell out what types of training and education are needed pre-drill, how to set up a command center and a triage area, and how to assess treatment areas during a drill. The book gives hospitals tools like checklists to not only conduct exercises, but analyze the results.

Sally Phillips, PhD, RN, director of AHRQ’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Research Program, says that the toolkit addresses an aspect of disaster-response exercises that often goes overlooked: evaluation.

“Sometimes we do a lot in the area of exercises and training, but we don’t build in an evaluation loop,” Dr. Phillips says. “Hospitals need a way to roll data into a concise reporting measure so they can do comparisons over time across exercises and settings.”

The booklet encompasses all kinds of disaster-response planning, from natural disasters such as fire or earthquakes to disasters due to explosives or to biologic, chemical, or radiological causes. Dr. Phillips says that she hopes the toolkit will encourage hospitals to make another important change in how they approach disaster planning: getting the participation of more physicians and nurses.

“Individuals in the clinical setting are the ones who are going to be challenged during these events,” she explains. “These exercises shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of only administrators and safety officers.”

The toolkit is available online.