Preparing for a Disaster
(Editor's note: This guest blog was written by Glen McDaniel, who writes the "Press Start: How to Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian" column for
ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals and provides healthcare consulting for hospitals, corporations and investment bankers; he also recently served as a hospital COO.)
Many of use were riveted and shaken by coverage of the earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan's northern Pacific coast in March, and of the tornado that hit Missouri in May.
The pain and loss have been heart wrenching, and the stories of survival amidst utter devastation have been incredible. Survivors often tell instructive tales of how they prepared to ride out the weather, given enough warning.
I do not mean to suggest for a moment that any amount of planning is an automatic guarantee against injury and damage. However, as someone who experienced several disasters up close and personal -- Hurricane Hugo, the Olympic Park bombing in 1986 and a couple of tornadoes -- I found that adequate disaster-preparedness planning can minimize the damage, mitigate the loss and speed the recovery phase.
I have also found that many of the principles of planning have wider application. Whether in healthcare or in our personal lives, there are some basic truisms that, if followed, make us more prepared for the unexpected.
Know the risks. It is important to do a complete risk assessment of all the assets vulnerable to disruption: information technology, physical structures and personnel for starters. Make a plan that lays out strategies to prevent the unexpected and how to mitigate any damage or disruption that might occur.
Equally important are detailed steps of how to continue to operate with minimal trauma, and how to return to business as usual as quickly as possible. Since not every circumstance is predictable the plan might include various scenarios with alternate actions. There might even need to be a Plan B and C, in addition to Plan A.
The best way to be prepared is to conduct drills to ensure familiarity with the procedures and to reduce panic during an actual disruption. Drills might also bring to light where vulnerabilities lie.
Increasingly, companies are adopting a practice called business resilience. This is based on the discovery that the most successful businesses are those which are able to face internal and external changes and bounce back with minimal shock or disruption to their core business operations. Business resilience is partly about avoidance and mitigation, but is more so about the ability to react appropriately, adapt quickly and then recover with minimum visible trauma.
Don't panic. Panic is self-destructive and counterproductive. It is very difficult to think clearly and act most appropriately in a state of panic. In fact, there is a greater probability of making mistakes if one is panicked.
Don't overreact. In emergencies, more is not always better. There is no need to exaggerate the seriousness of a situation or pull out the big guns to shoot a mosquito. A snowstorm or flooded elevator shaft (another real incident, I experienced as a hospital COO) require a different reaction than a tornado or hurricane, for example. Closing a building and relocating patients and equipment are not always indicated. Over-reaction can reduce productivity and even create more confusion and gridlock unnecessarily.
It cannot be over emphasized: not every disaster is predictable or comes with prior warning. But it is precisely for this reason that it is important to be prepared for every imaginable eventuality that can be imagined, to plan accordingly and to rehearse.
It takes preparation and resilience to be able to face unforeseen circumstances and still function with the minimum of panic or overreaction. But that is exactly what our patients demand of those of us in healthcare. That is also what will serve us best in our personal crises.