Expecting the Unexpected

Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo and Gregg S. Margolis | September 3, 2014

The question isn’t whether or not we will have another disaster – it is just a matter of when, where and how severe it will be.  The recent earthquake in Northern California, centered near Napa, serves as a reminder that we must be prepared for the unexpected no matter where we live. 

Northern California’s largest quake since 1989 happened in a large state where ONC has been working for the past year to ensure health data access every day and especially during disasters. In fact, in April of this year, we issued an assessment on available opportunities to address potential disasters in California and along the Gulf Coast.

Based on those assessments and our expectations of a catastrophic event in California, ONC started working with state emergency medical services officials last year to begin connecting the state’s 35 health information exchange organizations (HIEs) and EMS organizations. This effort was launched to help ensure health data access during emergencies.

The program is working on a pilot project involving several counties in California.  However, the Northern California earthquake reminds us that there is much work to do, and it must happen faster statewide and nationwide. We simply cannot make assumptions about how best to prepare for emergencies. In recognition of the importance of this initiative, the HHS Idea Lab awarded a joint ONC/ASPR proposal for the inaugural HHS Ventures Program.  The team has been actively engaged in this project as well as other ways technology can improve the routine delivery of care and disaster response – all in an effort to create more resilient communities.

In late July this year, the White House hosted the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo-Day, an event which brought together hundreds of technologists, entrepreneurs, and members of the disaster response community to showcase tools that will make a tangible impact on the lives of survivors in large-scale emergencies. The Demo-Day was part of a larger initiative, a public-private and government-wide effort to find the most effective ways technology can empower first responders and survivors.

At the Demo-Day, HHS announced two new initiatives:

  • NowTrending.hhs.gov is an ASPR-sponsored website that gathers data from Twitter to help provide insight to local and state health departments and public health emergency entities on emerging trends in health and disasters.  The data presented on this site is used to indicate potential health issues emerging in a population; build a baseline of Twitter trend data; engage the public on trending health or disaster topics; or to cross-reference other data sources.
  • The HHS At-Risk Resiliency Interactive Map is an open data map that is being co-sponsored by ASPR and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to show the number of electricity-dependent Medicare beneficiaries at the U.S. territory, state, county, and zip code level.  The map also will use NOAA real-time weather-tracking capabilities to identify areas that may be impacted by severe weather and at risk for prolonged power outages. This interactive map is under development and anticipated to launch soon on www.phe.gov.

Technology and health information technology have the power to inform and help survivors, first responders, and local, state, tribal, territorial and federal governments with critical information and resources related to emergencies. The projects outlined above are just a few examples of the many ways we are working towards the goal of better preparing and supporting communities and survivors before, during and following a disaster.