Emergency Notifications in the Healthcare Industry
Our blogs typically highlight the use of emergency notification systems for companies, such as service organizations, manufacturing, and typical private-sector businesses with a medium to large and/or dispersed workforce. While this has been our focus, we believe it is critical for any organization across every industry to have an emergency plan in place, practiced, and periodically updated to include the latest technology. The plan must include, at its core, a sound emergency communications strategy and solution.
I stumbled upon a recent article talking about mass notifications in an industry we haven’t written much about, namely healthcare. We’ve mentioned how a mass communication system can be used in the healthcare industry for scheduling the many shifts involved in most healthcare organizations, but we haven’t touched upon the need for mass communications in the event of an emergency in a hospital or other patient care facility. Until now.
Emergencies in Healthcare Are Diverse
We often think of hospitals as a safe place, where the injured and ill go to be treated no matter their background, what got them there, or even if they have the ability to pay. Emergencies are medical crises that keep E.R.s bustling at a breakneck speed. Yet emergencies can range from medical to violent acts, such as physical threats and assaults, to weather-related events that threaten patients and staff. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings can be just as dangerous as any private sector company, surprisingly, even more.
OSHA reported that from 2002 to 2013, “incidents of serious workplace violence (those requiring days off for the injured worker to recuperate) were four times more common in healthcare than in private industry on average.” This is more than the retail trade, construction, and manufacturing industries combined. More than 20 percent of registered nurses and nursing students reported being physically assaulted in 2014, and those are just the reported cases.
From where is all of this violence coming? Patients make up 80 percent of violent incidents, perhaps because they can be in pain or highly medicated. Other incidents come from visitors, coworkers, or simply someone holding a grudge, such as a rival gang member.
Other healthcare emergencies involve widespread evacuations due to weather-related events or even bomb threats. Consider a single hurricane and the impact it can have on a region of the U.S. Nearly two million people were evacuated along the east coast in preparation for Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Of those millions, a significant amount of people were located in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities. This is a massive undertaking for any city, let alone hospitals and nursing homes who have critical patients, the weak, and the elderly to consider. Organizations that were able to effectively communicate during a hurricane served their constituents better.
Mass Communications Is A Lifeline
Communication during all of these threats is vital and must be made an integral part of any emergency plan. It must also include high tech and low tech ways for staff members to signal an emergency, such as emergency buttons under desks, in hospital rooms, or from a mobile device. This will trigger the alarms, call for help, and depending upon the situation, activate the mass communication protocol to alert others who may be in danger. Mass communication in the healthcare setting is more challenging than some, but it can be effectively implemented using a multi-faceted approach.
Just as with any industry that has a highly mobile, fast-moving employee base, healthcare organizations don’t always use one mode of communication. Depending on the employee’s role, they may travel across multiple areas or facilities and may not have consistent access to email, landlines, or even mobile phones. Some hospitals prohibit the use of mobile phones while on shift, while others issue work-only mobile devices. These and other unique challenges make it difficult for some hospitals to communicate effectively with all employees during an emergency.
A Multi-Modal Approach to Emergency Notifications
Hospital administrators don’t want to leave any employee uninformed, particularly during an emergency. Implementing a multi-modal approach to emergency mass communications is the only way to ensure every employee who needs the message will receive it in a timely way. What are these modes?
When it comes to healthcare, there are many communication channels that can be used. The key, however, is to make sure all of these modes are integrated and can be used simultaneously so no matter where an employee is or what device they may or may not have with them, they can rest assured they will be immediately notified in the event of a crisis. All of the following communication channels can be integrated into a holistic, comprehensive mass communication system:
Public Address Systems
All hospitals have a public address system they use to communicate special codes or call for specific personnel. These codes are usually undeciphered by patients or visitors but part of the everyday vernacular for any staff member and are heard throughout the facilities. Of course, they can also be used to deliver any emergency notification, including those where every person in the facility needs to hear, such as in the event of a mass evacuation or a shelter in place.
Mobile Phones, Notebooks, and Tablets
Mobile devices are almost always with us, but in the healthcare setting, they aren’t always immediately accessible. Giving staff members a hospital-issued device or allowing them to carry their own device will ensure they can receive SMS text messages and push notifications for immediate notifications. They can also use the devices to check emails and voicemails more regularly.
Desktop Computers and Landline Phones
When nurses and doctors aren’t making rounds, they are often at a nurse’s station where multiple desktop computers and phones are used. Hospitals and healthcare organizations can send popup messages that appear on the computer screen and send alerts via phone messages. Of course, staff members can also use the computers to check emails.
Often relegated to security personnel, two-way radios (a.k.a. walkie-talkies) should be integrated into the communication plan. Janitors, cafeteria workers, maintenance, and other support staff can join security people to help bring calm, direct other employees, and send valuable ground-level intelligence to administrators, first responders, and other facilitators.
Believe it or not, the pager still has life, if only in a hospital setting. In fact, 85 percent of hospitals say they still rely on them for communication. These lightweight, battery-powered, and relatively inexpensive devices are highly reliable, even if there is a power outage and mobile phones cannot be charged. They also do not depend on strong cell phone service, a challenge many hospitals face. They can send and receive emergency notifications instantly, no matter where the person may be.
Finding the Best Integrated Mass Notification System
The healthcare setting is prime real estate for a multi-faceted mass communication system. With so many vulnerable people and the many emergencies that can happen in this setting, communications must become the foundation for any viable emergency response plan. Thankfully, technology is now available to integrate the many modes of communication that hospitals use on a regular basis. Messages can be sent instantaneously and simultaneously across all channels, even custom channels, with little effort.
The system should also include two-way communication capabilities. We often talk about the importance of two-way communication during an emergency but it’s worth repeating. During a crisis, it’s not always the administrator or the person in charge of sending the messages that has the most accurate or up to date information. The people in the eye of the storm, the ones at ground level, the ones with eyewitness perspective to the situation have the insight that can shape or reshape an emergency response strategy.
Whatever your emergency plan entails, ensure it has a multi-modal communication system that provides two-way communication when needed. Assess your work environment, your employee demographics and locations, the available devices and technology, and your current requirements. Find a communication system that integrates with existing internal systems, provides multi-modal capabilities, and measures the effectiveness of messages with metrics.
The system should be easy to implement and even easier to use, so no time is wasted getting started or during a crisis. Finally, practice. Practice with real-world scenarios with those who will be responsible for activating the system with messages and those who will receive them. Everyone should be comfortable with the technology so there are no surprises when it comes time to put it to use.
You can keep your staff and patients safe when you can keep them informed. A multi-layered mass communication system is perhaps the best technology in which your hospital or healthcare facility could ever invest.