UMass Medical School to help community health centers improve emergency planning for individuals with disabilities

Feb 04, 2016
Emergency Evacuation Plan with Pencil

By Ellen Moran

UMass Medical School is developing a toolkit to help community health centers determine whether their emergency preparedness plans address the needs of individuals with disabilities and to assess other potential emergency planning gaps.

“Increasingly, community health centers are taking a greater responsibility for being part of the local emergency planning and have important roles to play in community emergency response,” said Sue Wolf-Fordham, JD, a principal investigator for the project to enhance emergency preparedness for community health centers.

Wolf-Fordham, director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative at UMass Medical School’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, has been working since 2005 to train first responders, public health planners and communities to include individuals with disabilities in emergency planning. This project moves the effort to implement whole-community emergency planning to health care organizations.

The project will involve three community health centers, which have not been chosen. One community health center will be part of an advisory committee that will review the toolkit. Two centers will use the toolkit to evaluate their emergency plans with a rating scale, complete a tabletop exercise to assess the implementation of the plans, and identify and make any improvements needed in their plans.

The project is in response to proposed new regulations by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to expand the role of 17 different types of health care provider organizations, including community health centers. In addition, CMS expects community health centers to improve communication with their local community on disaster planning to better coordinate disaster and emergency response. The CMS proposed tougher rules after evaluating emergency planning in light of recent emergencies and disasters and finding emergency planning in the community health centers and other health care facilities did not always meet potential community needs.

The Shriver Center and the Office of Clinical Affairs, a unit within the medical school’s Commonwealth Medicine division, proposed a quality improvement project to enhance emergency planning and response capacity at community health centers. The project is being done in collaboration with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“Massachusetts community health centers are national leaders in local emergency preparedness. In addition to working with local, state and national preparedness officials and other health care and social services agencies to coordinate community-based emergency response planning, health centers provide active surveillance around potential disease outbreaks and serve as sites for dispensing vaccines and antibiotics under mass prophylaxis efforts,” said James W. Hunt Jr., president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

“We look forward to collaborating with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center to strengthen our current efforts to educate and ensure the safety and well-being of our patients and communities under any threat of emergency,” Hunt said. 

Community health centers could help a community in a variety of ways, including the distribution of medications or immunizations such as the flu vaccine; the distribution of potassium iodide for radioactive contamination in a nuclear disaster; or as a triage site in a chemical spill, said project principal investigator Jill Morrow-Gorton, MD, MBA, an associate professor in pediatrics at UMass Medical School and senior medical director in the Office of Clinical Affairs.

“There’s an expectation community health centers are a community resource not only for health care, but in response to emergencies and disasters,” Morrow-Gorton said. “There are a lot of ways community health centers could be a support to that community.”

The goal of the project is to improve emergency planning through plan evaluation and testing to protect the health of the 935,000 patients seen annually at Massachusetts community health centers and build the resilience of their communities in disasters.

“I see this as a wonderful opportunity all around,” said Wolf-Fordham, an instructor in Family Medicine and Community Health at UMass Medical School. “Sometimes people don’t think about the public health aspects of emergency planning.”

The project is funded by a one-year grant from Commonwealth Medicine.

If the project is successful, Wolf-Fordham believes it could be a national model for emergency planning in the 1,200 community health centers in the U.S. and other health care organizations regulated by CMS.  

“Our outcome is really to develop a robust toolkit, roll it out in Massachusetts and refine it further before rolling it out nationally,” Wolf-Fordham said.

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