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Bolstering the Front Lines of Healthcare

Temte says hospitals are better prepared for dealing with disasters than individual physicians because healthcare organizations have to go through accreditation processes that require disaster training, and doctors do not.

Although no significant, post-9/11 changes have been made to the emergency management standards all hospitals must meet for accreditation, some of the language within the standards has been revised based on the experiences of organizations that responded to the terrorist attack.

The revised standards call for more cooperative planning between organizations. Those that provide services to nearby areas must pool information and resources in case of an emergency.

In addition, the AHRQ recently unveiled a new hospital bioterrorism preparedness tool that healthcare organizations can use as a checklist to assess their ability to handle potential victims of bioterrorist attacks and evaluate existing emergency plans.

"In this context of bioterrorism, the hospital and healthcare providers are the front line," says Helen Burstin, MD, MPH, director of the center for primary care research at AHRQ. "One thing that becomes very clear is that in the event of a bioterrorist attack, people will go to either their local physician's office or emergency room."

"Since they are so clearly part of the picture in a way that they may not be for other natural disasters, you really need to make sure that the hospitals are prepared to handle it," Burstin tells WebMD.

While awareness of the potential for bioterrorism may have waned since the initial explosion of interest last fall, experts say that, in general, healthcare providers have learned some hard, but necessary lessons and are better equipped to deal with disaster than a year ago.

"There is a smoldering interest, and with sufficient need it's going to burst into flames again," says Temte. "If everyone is on the lookout for bioterrorism, we are going to have a lot of misdiagnoses. For now, we're at point where we have more information available and that's a good place to be."

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Reviewed on September 03, 2002

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