How providers can gain value from real-time info in emergencies

As a crisis unfolds, details gleaned from social media, blogs, the dark web and public information sectors can offer unparalleled insights.

At hospitals, the margin for error is razor thin, and during unexpected emergencies— from natural disasters to shootings—seconds can spell the difference between life and death.

The faster hospital teams have access to relevant, high-quality information, the faster they can mobilize; the faster they mobilize, the quicker they can get to work saving lives.

Yet, hospital operations and emergency management teams face significant barriers to obtaining information rapidly, especially during unpredictable breaking incidents. Not only can the volume of information be overwhelming (even for those with crisis management tools), but communication between hospitals and agencies is often fragmented, contradictory or delayed. This can significantly impair decisions surrounding resource allocation and emergency planning.

Of course, there are few scenarios more dependent on quick, effective decision-making than during a natural disaster, mass casualty incident or hospital shooting.

One solution to these challenging issues is real-time information for hospitals. This is information that's delivered faster than traditional information streams, leveraging sources like social media, blogs, the dark web and public information sensors. As an event unfolds, this type of information can, and frequently does, offer unparalleled insights—think on-the-ground pictures, live or near-live video and situational updates from those at the scene.

Given that the number of unexpected emergencies is tragically mounting, the need for—and value of—real-time information has never been greater.

For examples of where real-time information can make a substantial impact, one need only read newspaper headlines.

Consider, for instance, the recent Mercy Hospital shooting in Chicago, where four individuals were killed. At a time when immediate order and clear thinking was needed, confusion reigned. “It was total chaos," a staff member remarked to the Chicago Tribune. "All panic." From administrative levels to the operating floor, little was known about what was happening, where and whether or not there were multiple shooters (there was only one).

The reason? Given the inherently confusing and unpredictable nature of shootings, information streams were fragmented and conflicting. While hospital staff worked diligently to lock down rooms and move patients to safety—the hospital staff had run an active shooter drill just the month prior, according to the Advisory Board—they had little awareness about how on-the-ground events were unfolding.

Even the police had to deal with early conflicting reports at the scene, including rumors that the shooter had fled the scene on a bus, according to the Chicago Tribune. He had not. It is clear that, in situations like these, hospitals could benefit greatly from an additional source of fast-breaking information to help clarify an otherwise chaotic scene and dispel misinformation.

In other cases, where shootings or mass casualty events happen nearby, not inside the hospital, administrators need clear information to prepare staff and resources to receive patients. Consider the chaos of the 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas. While early reports to Las Vegas's University Medical Center trauma intensive care unit indicated that only five to 10 patients would be arriving, later reports specified five to 10 times that many—necessitating a drastic, last-minute change in response to ready a parking lot triage center.

In times like these, hospitals depend on early information to make accurate judgment calls and ensure the safety and security of patients and employees. Even during routine crises, like car accidents, hospitals need information not only about patient numbers, but issues like downed power lines or road closures affecting traffic, which can impact ambulance routes and emergency dispatch procedures.

Without such critical breaking information, hospitals risk making the wrong calls. In future situations like the Mercy Hospital or Las Vegas shooting, real-time information would be tremendously beneficial.

However, many hospitals lack access to real-time information, in large part because of the state of their communication streams. The traditional streams that hospitals process—which include information from police and fire departments, scanner traffic and news media—come with two significant problems.
  • They're slow. Delayed information can not only leave hospitals flat-footed but also without proper guidance, as information may not be current by the time it arrives. As a result, hospitals can be forced into a reactive scramble.
  • They're incomplete. They rarely include emerging sources of vital information, which have come to include social media, blogs, the dark web and even public information sensors like earthquake and flight data.

Yet, mining these sources for real-time information has become invaluable for hospitals. For instance, Forbes has referred to social media, in times of natural disaster, as “a source of real-time, geographic-based information, provided directly by social media users from the affected community, thereby providing enhanced situational awareness of disaster-hit areas." Because users routinely post real-time information about ongoing situations (with pictures and video), social media has become vital for calculating a rapid, effective response—and for sorting out actionable facts from extraneous noise.

Meanwhile, ASPR TRACIE, the national healthcare preparedness information gateway, observes that social media has “significantly supplemented—if not nearly replaced— more traditional means of communication in many areas of the U.S.," thereby providing a unique, invaluable way for emergency managers to "[glean] information to help allocate resources."

Because of its convenience and inherent visibility (accessible by anyone on the Internet), social media has become a go-to communication tool and resource for those engulfed by emergencies. As a result, social media can offer hospitals an unprecedented breadth and depth of event coverage, including nuanced details that may not make the news—including the locations of unreported people in need of assistance, real-time updates impacting the safety of first responders, or details like newly flooded or unnavigable roadways.

In these two respects, real-time information has become not only useful but absolutely essential for hospital teams to conduct highly informed and effective operations during emergencies. Hospitals today would be wise to incorporate such an invaluable tool into their emergency arsenals and technology stacks.

Fortunately, tools and solutions are evolving to make real-time information for hospitals a reality. For administrators and emergency teams, the benefits of tapping into these kinds of capabilities are numerous.

By harnessing sources of accurate, breaking information, hospitals gain both enhanced situational awareness and an ability to make sense of the informational chaos that can engulf teams. With this information, hospital personnel can respond quickly and effectively—allocating staff and resources where appropriate, while keeping patients and employees safe.

Meanwhile, hospitals gain a no less critical ability to control the message. This means keeping the public apprised of accurate details during ongoing events, responding quickly and confidently to public questions or concerns, and developing coherent messaging before journalists, stakeholders and other community leaders inevitably inquire.

Real-time information vastly improves a hospital's ability to react to unexpected emergencies with speed and grace. During a time when crises are on the rise, an increase in knowledge means an increase in hospitals' power to respond.

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