Irene tests SIUH Social Media Strategies

Disasters Test Hospital Social Media Strategies

Anna Webster, for HealthLeaders Media , August 31, 2011

Hurricane Irene posted a number of firsts over this weekend. The first major hurricane to hit the east coast since 2008, the storm caused Staten Island University Hospital to close its doors for the first time in 150 years.

The sight was a rare one – hundreds of empty beds and quiet at a New York City hospital in one of the busiest boroughs.

Last Friday newborns in the neonatal unit were transferred from SIUH to other hospitals, one by one. Dozens of ambulances zig-zagged to the hospital entrances, preparing to clear beds, transfer patients, and shutter the facility.

The New York-based 714-bed hospital, a member of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, was one of a few hospitals to evacuate during the hurricane.

Though some New Yorkers have complained that the hurricane hype was overblown, the Category 1 storm downed more than 2,000 trees and caused serious flooding and power outages across the five boroughs in the city.

The hurricane left behind a death toll of at least 35 people and could cost an estimated $7 billion dollars in damage across the East Coast.

On Thursday evening, SIUH management decided to evacuate before the mayor's mandatory evacuation deadline for 8 p.m. on Friday. Though unprecedented, the purge of patients from SIUH was executed not with an air of chaos, but with sadness, according to staff reaction.

"There were goodbyes and the ambulances and relay teams it just kept coming and coming," said Arleen Ryback director of public affairs for SIUH. "It was also very sad for caregivers to see their patients leave, it was very poignant in many respects."

Though all hospitals are required to have Hospital Emergency Incident Command System (HEICS) – only a few may end up putting the plan to use. A few months ago, SIUH underwent a HEICS review, which emphasized that one of the key pieces of the communication network during a disaster is social media.

"[The reviewers] were very impressed that we were set up to use social media in the event of an emergency," Ryback said. "Not all hospitals are set up to do that."

The bigger question here is how would hospitals like SIUH be able to handle an emergency situation without social media? Ryback says that the hospital system wanted to cover all its bases with communication in order to keep staff, patients, and the community updated.

A quarter of respondents from a June Red Cross survey said that in an emergency, they would turn to social media to alert loved ones that they were safe. Also, 80% responded that national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond quickly.

In the event of a power outage (and inaccessible email) updating staff or the community would be impossible without rapid communication tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

When Virginia suffered a 5.8 magnitude earthquake on August 23, Twitter reportedmore than 40,000 quake-related tweets within 60 seconds of the event. Facebook also had 3 million U.S. users updating friends and family about the earthquake.

Email simply can't keep up.

"We were able to measure and track people's responses during the hurricane," Ryback said. “We also sent out notifications to local newspapers and they put the information up on their accounts.”

Since Irene started churning up the coast, a number of organizations used social media preemptively, to their communication advantage:

Widgets – The Red Cross provides free disaster relief widgets that hospitals can easily add to websites or blogs. The tool automatically updates with information the Red Cross provides about the natural disaster.

Twitter resources – The National Public Health Information Coalition created an aggregate Twitter feed on its website during hurricane Irene. The page shows updates from east coast states about state emergencies. One example includes how @healthvermont tweeted at 9:16 a.m. on August 30 th:

Health Dept. currently no email service. Call if need to reach us. Find info at our website healthvermont.gov and Facebook page. #vt

YouTube – Sometimes pictures speak louder than words. Having a hospital YouTube channel can enable a health system to show the community how it reacted in an emergency situation. North Shore LIJ Health System has a YouTube channel with a recent video of its CEO Michael Dowling commenting on the evacuation. Dowling is an advocate for technology and has said that it is a core component of North Shore-LIJ's strategic plan.

Hospitals and healthcare organizations should be aware of the tools at their disposal in the event of an emergency or natural disaster. One message Ryback echoes: It’s better to be safe than sorry.

“I think we learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina,” she added.

Mayor Michael Bloombergthanked New York medical staff affected by the hurricane "who carried out the incredibly well-done evacuation of more than 7,000 hospital patients and residents of nursing homes and other residential facilities in the low-lying coastal areas."

Since Irene made her mark on the East Coast, SIUHhas been busy hosting an abundance of media reporters looking to cover the story of the evacuation. Ryback had hoped to show a photographer the empty beds in the emergency department. To her surprise, the room was already being filled with patients again. In the infirmary two babies occupied two of the 56 bassinets.

SUIH is quickly returning back to its original state before the storm.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? Anna Webster, Online Content Coordinator for HealthLeaders Media, can be reached at awebster@hcpro.com.
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