The AHA and Department of Health and Human Services, by way of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, have entered into a new grant to strengthen and reimagine the emergency management system for the nation’s health care and public health preparedness, response and recovery efforts to disasters and other emergencies. 

As a partner in this work, the AHA will convene and engage with hospitals, health systems and public health stakeholders to identify and widely share lessons learned and promising practices, in responding to COVID-19 and other overlapping emergencies. In addition, the AHA will engage with members to identify and address continued needs for support in an effort to strengthen response coordination systems between health care and public health. The scope of this work is ambitious and will evolve, in phases, through the fall of 2026. 

Its success is dependent on the input we receive from AHA members who have invaluable first-hand experience of the successes – and vulnerabilities – of emergency and disaster preparedness within hospitals and health systems throughout the country. 

One such example of this work recently took place at the 2022 AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, where the AHA held an open dialogue around strengthening emergency management systems. Information gathered will be translated into digestible case studies, action plans and compendiums for the field to learn from and apply. Here are a few key takeaways from the conversation:

Cybersecurity threats are on the forefront of rural health care leaders’ minds 
Cybersecurity threats are at the forefront of health care leaders’ minds, especially those in rural areas, where resources may be limited and the physical proximity to other facilities often is sizable. It is difficult for hospitals to mitigate the risks around cybersecurity since the very systems they rely on are complex and ever-changing.  For example, there are inherent vulnerabilities with third-party vendors such as electronic health records platforms or supply chain inventory management systems.

Competing COVID-19 narratives have had a psychological impact on health care workers 
The complex polarities surrounding COVID-19 have left health care workers facing challenging and even dangerous situations. Specifically, front-line staff are overwhelmed and, at times, fearful for their own personal safety, especially when it comes to communicating and enforcing standard best practices to hostile patients and individuals, such as face mask mandates and visitation restrictions. 

Strengthening coordination and communication between health care and public health authorities is critical
In general, the pandemic has demonstrated the critical linkage between health care entities and public health authorities at all levels – local, state and federal. While the coordination structures between health care and public health have evolved during the pandemic, there is a need to strengthen epidemiological surveillance and data-sharing to facilitate rapid response coordination between entities.  

Ability to scale staffing models will be critical as surges continue
If the current trends for COVID-19 continue, hospitals and health systems may continue to experience surges as the virus evolves over time. By establishing scalable staffing models, hospitals can prepare for and respond to surges within their communities. 

Internal and external communication structures can help manage misinformation
The field’s internal and external communication structures continue to be critical when managing misinformation. Attendees emphasized the imperative roles that their public information officers have played in providing consistent messaging to staff and the general public throughout the pandemic. In addition, attendees noted the value of having established communication structures in place with external partners, such as public health and local news outlets, which were willing and able to coordinate consistent, accurate messaging to the public in an effort to combat misinformation. 

Kristin Preihs is AHA’s director of clinical quality, grants & contracts. Helena Bonfitto is a senior program manager for AHA’s Center for Health Innovation. 

This publication was supported by Cooperative Agreement, 1 HITEP210047-01-00, funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The Health Research and Educational Trust, an AHA 501(c)(3) nonprofit subsidiary, is a proud partner of this Cooperative Agreement. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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