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The Devastating Impact Natural Disasters Have on Health Care

Created: 11 October, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read


Video Source: NBC News

Hospitals and health care companies make their living by being prepared for unfortunate events, but when a natural disaster strikes, it can push health care companies to their limits.

Two major hurricanes have already hit the United States coastline this season, and more storms seem poised to keep the pressure on. The destruction and disorganization these storms leave in their wake lead to heavy demands on health care providers. The responsible parties make sure that those affected get the care they need, but what is the long-term impact on health care companies?

Points of Impact

When major natural disasters hit, it sends a shockwave through the health care community. The initial stress is felt in hospitals and urgent care clinics as those affected by the event arrive seeking care. Patients aren’t limited to those with adequate insurance coverage, and the result can be losses counted in the millions for hospitals and care providers.

The damages don't just end there though, because local offices can be affected by the same disasters that drive patients through the doors en masse.

That can keep hospitals from operating and slow productivity. Pharmaceutical companies and medical tech producers might need to shut their doors for weeks before normal operations can resume, resulting in a lasting impact on the industry as a whole.

Picking up the Pieces

In some cases, people caught in a storm need to take leave from work because of an injury. Massive storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados have the power to destroy homes and wreck personal property, but how do health care providers treat claims made by people taking leave because of the effects of a storm?

To comply with federal guidelines designed to encourage providers to be prepared for natural disasters, the guiding principle for providers when assessing claims that result from a natural disaster should be to act prudently and responsibly.

While it can be difficult to determine when someone might qualify for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) coverage, self-funded plans are required to observe the same responsibilities they would during normal operating conditions, for example: COBRA, HIPAA and ACA.

The Second Wave

Even after the initial impact of a storm or earthquake, less-fortunate members of the population can fall victim to infection from unsanitary living conditions. The flooding that resulted after Harvey and Irma has rendered many hospitals short of food and other critical supplies, and without safe, clean places to go, the homeless populations in affected areas are routed by disease.

Prescriptions that patients rely on cannot be filled, and special-needs patients who rely on equipment in their homes can be forced out by flood damage. Dialysis patients are of particular concern. Weather conditions can displace nurses trained in operating the machines, and patients cannot go for long stretches without treatment.

Relocating Patients

When Hurricane Harvey struck in Texas recently, hospitals had no choice but to adopt a strategy of moving patients out of local hospitals cut off from the resources needed to maintain care. To ensure sensitive conditions like asthma and severe illness do not put patients at risk, those affected were airlifted to facilities outside of the flood zone.

Now-famous images from the La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson depict more than 20 tenants of the facility overwhelmed by waters above waist level. The message "need help ASAP emergency services please" prompted a timely response, as prolonged exposure to such conditions could be dangerous for anyone, let alone the elderly living at La Vita Bella.

The cost of these significant relocation operations is difficult to plan for. Even with the knowledge that a storm is coming, service providers cannot begin to assess the number or scale of relocation efforts a given event will require. The costs of fuel, overtime for staff and potential damage to equipment when operating in dangerous conditions all factor in.

Staying the Course

The Hippocratic Oath doctors take reverberates throughout the health care industry. There is a tremendous spirit of altruism in what people who perform these jobs do, but there are limits to what the system can support. With the dramatic weather patterns of recent years showing no signs of letting up, perhaps it’s a good idea to add a little fat to the reserves. It’s likely patients and providers alike will need it.

Photo Credit: michelmond / shutterstock.com