Hospitalists are playing an increasingly bigger role in our state—Mississippi’s—hospitals. And that role became even more important during preparation for Hurricane Katrina. Many hospitalists in the coastal area came to their hospitals before the storm hit to be on call for other doctors who were unable to make it to the facility during the severe weather conditions. After the storm, hospitalists were also key to community recovery efforts.
Practicing medicine is difficult enough without any kind of communication with the outside world, with only limited supplies of drinking water and no water pressure, with nowhere to discharge patients, and an increasingly steady stream of patients coming in. But it’s even more difficult to do that when you are worrying about your own family’s safety. And that is what many Mississippi hospitalists were faced with during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
After the storm, hospital employees were faced with trying to pick up the pieces of their personal lives and taking care of patients at the same time. Employees without homes have contributed to hospital staffing problems in some areas. For example, 65% of the staff of Biloxi Regional Medical Center (BRMC) in Biloxi and 50% of physicians completely lost their houses and all of their personal effects. As of Dec. 1, 2005, BRMC had lost 82 staff due to their struggles dealing with these losses. For those who lost homes, housing is a big issue—second only to those who had children in school and who are trying to get them through the school year without a hitch.
The medical infrastructure in the six Mississippi counties hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina is slowly recovering. Information and Quality Healthcare (IQH), the state’s Medicare quality improvement organization, was charged with keeping track of the progress of the healthcare community in Mississippi after the storm. They reported in December 2005 that about 60% of the 775 clinics and medical practices along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were fully operational and about 80% of the area’s physicians were back on the job. Almost 70 other clinics or medical practices were either partially operational or doing business from a temporary location, leaving 10 that will not rebuild. The status of another 160 or so was uncertain because the agency was unable to contact them.
IQH conducted a survey showing that 36% of primary-care clinics in the lower six counties of the state were either destroyed or closed in the wake of the hurricane. But the region has rebounded, and IQH estimates that about eight in 10 doctors are now back on the job. All 14 hospitals in the region, including specialty facilities, have reopened. Three acute-care hospitals, including 104-bed Hancock Medical Center (HMC), were forced to close temporarily.
Located in Bay St. Louis where the eye of Hurricane Katrina came ashore, HMC was the hardest hit of our facilities and was severely affected by the strong storm surge. Its emergency department reopened on Oct. 5, and hospital beds were available by Oct. 28. By December, diagnostic services were being offered once again. As of early December, Hancock Medical Center had 100 on staff, compared with 495 staff members before the storm.
According to IQH, many physicians have remained in Mississippi. The physicians—and the whole state—have been fairly resilient. A lot of physicians are in temporary locations. Some have found temporary offices or are working closely with hospital medical staffs. Hospitals have provided temporary locations. But the hospitals on the coast have rebounded well.
As a hospital association, we were very busy in response to the multitude of needs after the storm hit. We had two staff members at the Mississippi Department of Health’s Emergency Operations Center during the hurricane, and they worked together with other staff to outline and coordinate hospital and community health needs after the hurricane. We helped coordinate national efforts to get needed supplies and donations to our hospitals statewide.
Working in conjunction with the American Hospital Association, the Alabama Hospital Association, and the Louisiana Hospital Association, we created a tri-state care fund to accept donations to assist hospital employees who had lost everything during the hurricane. This fund collected more than $3 million for hospital employees affected by Hurricane Katrina. More information can be found at www.mhacares.com.
Because our hospitals needed to receive Katrina-related information quickly, we also set up a “Hurricane Katrina Information for Hospitals” blog right after the hurricane and still post relevant information to it today. You can view it at http://mhanewsnow.typepad.com/katrina.
With things slowly getting back to normal, we understand that the mental health of our hospital employees and the community will be an ongoing concern. Though Hurricane Katrina dealt a terrible blow to our state’s hospitals, it also brought us all together to work for a common cause: our patients. I was never more proud to be a part of the healthcare community in our state. It reminded me once again that together we can—and do—make a difference. TH
Sam Cameron is CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association.