So far in 2017, the United States has seen blizzards, fires, tornadoes, floods, and other disasters. Have any of these disasters struck near you or affected your laboratory? If it did strike your area, would you be prepared? Would your lab staff know what to do and how to work to continue lab operations? A comprehensive emergency operations plan is not something that should be dusted off and considered when an emergency situation occurs. It should be reviewed and tested on a regular basis, and all lab staff should know how to put it into action easily.
The College of American Pathologists (CAP) requires laboratories to have “written policies and procedures defining the role and responsibilities of the laboratory in internal and external disaster preparedness.” A second related standard also requires that labs have a functional evacuation plan in case work can no longer be performed in the department because of unsafe conditions. These policies should be developed with input from lab leaders, medical directors, and other key hospital or facility emergency management personnel. The disaster plan for the lab must work for the department, but consideration must be given to other areas if the lab does not stand alone in the building.
As with many lab safety guidelines and rules, regulatory agencies often put forth changes or updates as they deem necessary. At the end of 2016, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published an updated final rule for healthcare providers- and that includes labs- regarding Emergency Preparedness. The purpose of the rule was to establish national emergency preparedness requirements, to ensure adequate planning for both natural and man-made disasters, and to provide coordination with federal, state, tribal, regional and local emergency preparedness systems.
The CMS requirements can be broken down into four elements, Policies and Procedures, Risk Assessment and Emergency Planning, Communication Plans, and Training and Testing. First, all lab and hospital emergency management policies or procedures need to comply with federal and state laws. As stated earlier, these policies need to be easily understood so that any staff member can put them into motion. There may be disaster scenarios in which lab leadership may not be able to get to the site. Lab emergency operations plans should be reviewed or updated annually.
Hospitals and labs should review the hazards in the local areas and assess what disaster types are most likely. Consider situations like equipment or power failures, and even an interruption in communications, including cyber-attacks. CMS also wants facilities to plan for the loss of all or a portion of a facility, or even the loss of supplies.
Laboratories should have a plan to contact staff, including physicians or other necessary persons. This communication system should be well-coordinated within the facility and across health care providers. The state and local public health departments and emergency management agencies need to be included in the facility communication plan as well.
The final CMS-required core element for emergency response includes testing and training. All staff needs to be familiar with the contents of the response plan, and the plan should be well-maintained through regular training of staff and testing. That testing can include the use of table-top drills or even assessing how the plan worked in a real disaster scenario. While CAP allows many lab policies to be reviewed once every other year, CMS requires an annual review or update of these disaster policies and procedures.
Developing a comprehensive emergency management plan is no small undertaking, and if you don’t have one in place already, make sure you gather a team to help with that project since there is much to consider. If you belong to a system of laboratories, you also need to consider how the plan will connect the actions of multiple sites. If you have a plan in place, make sure you assess it regularly for ease of use and the ability to achieve its goals. Those goals should include the safety of staff, the continued delivery of services (if possible), and recovery to normal operation. We know that emergency situations aren’t all that rare, and following this pathway can help your lab be ready when the next disaster strikes.
–Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.