1 in 3 Hospitals Struggle With Radiological Disaster Preparedness

Published: March 23, 2011

Note: This is the second installment of Campus Safety magazine’s two-part coverage of results from its emergency preparedness survey. Click here to read part one.

Like their brethren on school and university campuses, a significant minority of hospital officials who participated in Campus Safety magazine’s emergency preparedness survey say they are concerned about their campus’ ability to respond to a nuclear emergency. Thirty-five percent said their healthcare institutions were only slightly prepared (18 percent) or not prepared at all (17 percent) for this type of event.

On the bright side, nearly three out of five hospital respondents believe their overall emergency plans are sufficient (59 percent). A third of respondents say their plans need minor or moderate modifications. Of those institutions with plans that are sufficient or require minor or moderate changes, 55 percent are reviewing them for possible revisions in light of the disasters that resulted from the March 11 earthquake in Japan.

“Our emergency preparedness committee met just this past week, and we reviewed our hazard/vulnerability assessments to take [the risk of a nuclear incident] into account,” says John Williams, public safety manager for Prince William Hospital, which is located in northern Virginia, about 50 miles from a nuclear power plant. “One of the things we did was add a radiological disaster [assessment] and rated that impact. We also rated the things we had internally and in our region [that could be used] to respond. I think from a policy and process standpoint, there isn’t much more we would do differently with a radiological incident compared to a biological attack or chemical release. We’ve already planned for those mass casualty events.”

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That’s good news for the vast majority of respondents who say they are at least somewhat prepared for a chemical or biological event. More than eight out of 10 survey takers from hospitals say their institutions are somewhat prepared to very well prepared for a chemical disaster (85 percent) and biological disaster (84 percent).

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Williams warns, however, that hospital protection professionals shouldn’t rest easy, particularly considering the staggering number of potential victims a nuclear, chemical or biological disaster could generate.  The combined March 11 earthquake/tsunami/radiological disaster in Japan, for example, caused more than 250,000 people to be displaced, many of whom required treatment or at least screening for radiological contamination.

“We are prepared for large quantities of people coming in for most events,” he says. “But if we had 50,000 people, I don’t think anyone could handle that at one time. I don’t care how prepared you are.”

Another concern of Williams’ is how an event like a radiological, chemical or biological disaster would affect hospital staff.  Would nurses, doctors and security staff show up to work when they may have lost family members or their homes? Williams speculates that the percentage of staff willing to respond to these types of events would decrease compared to a less dire scenario.

“It’s human nature to care for the people you love first,” he says.

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