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HHS Launches GIS-Based Tool for Health Disaster Readiness

With estimates that 1.6 million Americans rely on electricity-dependent medical devices, such as ventilators and wheelchairs, many are in danger during power outages where these individuals may find themselves without this vital equipment.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released their emPOWER map, which plots where Medicare patients who rely on electric medical devices live, in order to be better prepared to support these patients during emergencies.

The emPOWER map records where Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries using electrical equipment live, based on these beneficiaries’ claims for their equipment. It inputs this data, plus data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, into a Geographic Information System (GIS), a computer system that stores and displays geographic data.

Users of the map can search by zip code, state, or county to see where these beneficiaries live. This allows community health organizations to know if any areas are in danger of a power outage and if there are any users of medical devices in that area who will need power restored quickly.

The emPOWER map protects patients’ privacy in accordance with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act and the Federal Privacy Act, but in emergencies, more information can be made available to health services if necessary to save lives.

There are many different ways that communities will be able to utilize the emPOWER map. Electric companies can use it to determine where they need to prioritize restoring power in an emergency. Hospitals can use the map to determine how to best prepare for emergencies and where their medical services might be needed. Also, shelters can use it to determine whether they will face an influx of residents needing electricity for medical devices during an emergency.

“With the rise in home-based care, real-time awareness of population-level needs, and the ability to respond to them, is critical,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, HHS’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a statement. “Better planning helps communities respond better and recover faster, and that’s where our emPOWER Map can provide the greatest benefit.”

As the US population ages, more and more people are choosing to take their medical devices home with them. A 2010 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) paper laid out some of the appeal of home medical care, including an increase in quality of life and savings.

However, with these advantages come a few major challenges. Most caregivers are not trained in using such devices and many of these devices are not designed to be used at home. They may come with no instructions as to how to use or clean them. Furthermore, the paper notes, home caregivers, unlike trained medical professionals, will probably not know how to respond during incidents such as power outages.

Fortunately, many devices come with back-up measures in case of power failure. For example, most ventilators, which help users breathe, can be hand-driven or may have back-up batteries in case of emergency. However, these are designed as stop-gap measures and many caregivers do not know how to operate them, attesting to the importance of providing a way for these devices to get access to power as soon as possible.

“For people who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment, prolonged power outages can mean life or death,” Lurie said. “This tool helps communities better anticipate, plan for, and respond to these unique needs of this population and improve resilience for the entire community before and after disasters.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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