Wanted: Systems to track disaster victims

Shock to the system

A Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization is developing a set of requirements for patient tracking systems for use in disasters.

The organization, Comcare Emergency Response Alliance, has drafted a requirements document and is refining it after hearing emergency response experts’ comments at a meeting in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

Comcare Director David Aylward said he hoped to issue the final version of the requirements by the end of the year. They would then be available to any community or organization aiming to develop or acquire a tracking system.

If funding is available, Comcare officials also want to develop a model request for proposals and work with jurisdictions to test the RFP.

Although patient tracking systems are not brand-new, they are not widely used either, said Niki Papazoglakis, a business development specialist at IBM Global Services. St. Louis and Baltimore are among the larger cities that use them, along with some smaller jurisdictions.

Patient tracking systems keep records of the location of disaster victims, particularly in large-scale catastrophes during which family members may get separated. The systems also store triage information about the kinds and severity of medical problems the victims are experiencing.

That information can help emergency managers allocate resources and find help for the victims. Later, it can help in evaluating emergency response and in planning for future disasters.

The need for patient tracking has been evident to many emergency managers for some time, but it was dramatized by Hurricane Katrina in August. Three months after the storm, more than 6,000 people are still listed as missing in the stricken area.

At the meeting, Comcare’s eight-page requirements document drew some criticism for its length and broad scope. “You’re trying to put way too much information in this system,” one person said.

James Michelson, director of clinical informatics at George Washington University, said he felt the requirements described a medical records system rather than a patient tracking system.

Aylward said the additional information beyond basic tracking of patients would make the system more useful on a day-to-day basis. Systems that are used every day are more likely to be useful during disasters than systems that are seldom used, he added.

In addition, he said, the system should be designed to hold more than basic information, even if users initially don’t want to use all the extra capabilities.

But “there isn’t, in my mind, an everyday approach that will scale” to handle major incidents, said Mark Raker, northeast regional sales manager at Salamander Technologies, which offers a patient tracking product.

The issue of whom a patient tracking system should monitor was also discussed at the meeting. The systems are well-suited to track evacuees and other victims of a disaster even if they don’t need medical care. A Raytheon system on display at the meeting creates a roster of volunteers on the scene by their scanned driver’s licenses.

Comcare is aiming for a flexible system with open-architecture and robust security features. A patient tracking system should be able to share data with other systems such as a medical records system, the organization's white paper says. It also should be easily used with a variety of devices such as cell phones, personal digital assistants and laptop computers.

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