Pa. takes inventory

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

To better respond to bioterrorist threats and other emergencies, a coalition of private and public groups in a rural part of Pennsylvania is taking inventory of the region's healthcare and first responder critical resources — including equipment, personnel and expertise, and facilities — and creating an accessible Web-based repository.

"You don't know what you need to add if you don't know what you've got," said Andrea Hassol, an associate with Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates Inc., a private company that conducts research and consulting concerning social policy.

Partnering with Geisinger Health System, a large healthcare provider in Pennsylvania with six hospitals in the area and about 40 outpatient clinics, and a regional governmental task force, Hassol said Abt is just beginning the initiative with about $480,000 in funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The coalition will catalog the critical resources of a seven-county region — which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the northeastern part of the commonwealth — with a population of 375,000 within a 3,000 square-mile area, she said.

For example, the coalition plans to note the number of hospitals, patient beds, clinics, doctors, nurses, medical and communications equipment, firefighters, their vehicles and equipment, and a number of other vital resources that people need to know in case of an emergency, Hassol said.

Information such as the number of epidemiologists, their locations, evacuation routes and how soon medical staff can be mobilized will also be documented, she said. In the future, the coalition plans to geocode, or map, such data, she added.

She said the data would be loaded into an electronic repository where it can be accessed and updated through the Web, something planned for next summer. She admitted that collecting some information will be hard because not all healthcare providers are connected to the Internet or have computers.

For instance, nationwide about 10 percent of local public health departments lack e-mail access, and up to 40 percent do not have high-speed Internet access, with most gaps occurring in rural towns. In such a case, Hassol said paper forms will be distributed and possibly a hardcopy catalog of resources would be produced as well by next summer.

However, she said the planning group still will have to work through some challenges. For instance, what kind of proprietary information can be shared, who can have access to the information, where should the data reside and who should maintain it, among other issues, she said.

While such information forms the basis for devising better emergency plans for disasters, she said the region can also come to the aid of its neighbors. "They see themselves as possibly a resource, should there be an urban problem," Hassol said.

She added that the Web-based system could be a model for the rest of the country, but the next logical step would be expanding the repository statewide.

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