Health Information Exchange Featured Article

September 27, 2012

Plan Now for Disaster When Setting Up Health Information Exchanges

If you hear a tornado or hurricane is racing toward your town, chances are you’re not going to worry about your medical records.

But a new report from a group representing six Gulf States said health information exchanges (HIEs) must think about how to protect this data in disaster preparedness and response plans.

“The vulnerability of paper-based health record systems was clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan in 2004 and Katrina and Rita in 2005, when over a million people had to be evacuated to safety,” Christopher Sullivan, PhD, wrote. “Coastal counties were seriously impacted by evacuees who needed shelter and medical assistance. Doctors were unable to obtain much-needed medical records and could not reconstruct care plans due to lack of information, which created major problems for doctors the people they were treating.”

The consortium’s goal was to develop a strategic plan for sharing health information data among the Southeast and Gulf States during and following a declared natural disaster.

Representatives from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas sat down to come up with ways to incorporate disaster planning into HIEs right from the start.

According to a new ONC blog posting, the report recommends that states in the process of creating HIEs review state disaster response and governance policies, as they may not address the sharing of health information during a disaster; develop standard procedures to share electronic health information across state lines before a disaster occurs, and establish a waiver of liability for release of records and to default state privacy and security rules to existing HIPAA standards in a disaster.

Granted, these are not what most IT professionals think about when linking EHR technology together but they are important nonetheless, the group said.

In addition, the report suggested that states engage local HIEs, and private and public health information networks such as delivery systems, insurers, and electronic health records vendors, “to increase sources from which health information may be exchanged.”

Finally, consider a phased approach to building interstate HIE capabilities.

“Health information sharing during a disaster should not rely solely on the State HIE, but on a more effective network of health information-sharing networks,” the report concluded.

Edited by Brooke Neuman