Hospices in hurricane zones each year face the complex task of ensuring they can continue operations and support patients in their homes in the aftermath of a potentially catastrophic storm. Hospices in Florida recently contended with Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, while the region experienced minimal damage from that storm, providers were standing ready to see their patients through a disaster.
Dorian was the first major storm of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, which spans from June to November. The hurricane tore through the Carribean, with the Bahamas and other islands taking the brunt of the devastation. The storm slowed by the time it reached the eastern coast of the United States, including Florida and the Carolinas.
For hospices in the region, hurricane preparedness begins long before storm clouds gather. Trustbridge, a provider of hospice, home health care, palliative care and other services in eastern Florida, works with patients on emergency preparedness right from the beginning, at admission.
“At the time we admit a new patient we have a repertoire of questions that we go over with the patient and family regarding emergency preparation,” Jackie Lopez-Devine, chief clinical officer for Trustbridge told Hospice News. “We have a formalized method of gathering that information and tracking it from day to day and throughout the year. At the start of hurricane season, we already have a sense of how many of our patients will need assistance with evacuation versus how many will self-evacuate.”
VITAS Healthcare, the hospice subsidiary of Chemed Corp. (NYSE: CHEM) assigns patients an emergency priority level upon admission and provides patient and family education on hurricane readiness during intake, according to Patty Husted, executive vice president of operations for VITAS.
Ensuring that patients have sufficient supplies is critical, including medication, durable medical equipment, oxygen and other necessities. Hospices typically plan to provide patients receiving home care with two weeks worth of supplies to carry them through in case roads become impassable or delivery systems are interrupted.
Trustbridge operates its own distribution center that stockpiles materials to be distributed to patients in an emergency. Prior to Dorian, for example, the hospice delivered 130 additional cannisters of oxygen to patient homes, Greg Sinclair, vice president of support services for Trustbridge told Hospice News.
VITAS, which serves a census of 10,000 patients in Florida, also took steps to ensure patients were ready for any potential service interruption.
“To ensure our patients were prepared for the storm, our teams proactively delivered a two-week supply of medication, medical supplies and any other needed medical equipment,” Husted told Hospice News. “VITAS secured two fuel trucks to address any issues caused by potential long-term power outages. Fuel is earmarked for generators and vehicle fuel for VITAS staff members, to make sure they could be deployed to care for their patients as soon as possible.”
An incident command structure must be in place in order to implement an effective emergency operations plan. The Trustbrige command team roster includes representatives from each of the organization’s departments as well as their CEO and CFO. This team begins coordinating hurricane preparedness activities long before the approach of hurricane season.
“We’ve cultivated a team which is accustomed to planning for seasonal tropical weather. We plan and we test. We learn and improve,” Trustbridge CEO David Fielding told Hospice News. “When severe weather threatens our area, our teams know where they need to be and what they need to do to insure the safety and comfort of our patients.”
In some severe weather events, the safety of patient homes may be compromised and evacuation may be necessary. Hospices in the region prepare for these eventualities as well with resources to transport patients to safer locations where they can continue to receive care.
Patients are not the only ones who may need support in a hurricane, however. Massive storms impact staff as well, with some experiences home and vehicle damage as well as injuries in some cases. Hospices need to have plans in place to help employees get back to work caring for patients as soon as possible.
“VITAS also activated its employee support line during the storm to assist employees in the event of an emergency. It is staffed by VITAS employees in non-storm locations, and members of the VITAS Human Resources department follow up on serious employee concerns and provide assistance,” Husted said. “In the past, the help line has supported employees who needed gas, food, lodging and other necessities. VITAS’ emergency hotline was also activated during the storm, allowing employees to call a toll-free number to access current information about the storm, day or night.”