Health Care

Are US Hospitals Prepared for Major Disasters

Where's the first place you'd think to go if you or family member is injured in a hurricane, tornado or other disaster? A hospital, right? You may be surprised, maybe even alarmed and angered, but it may not be the best place to go.

Since 2000, there've been two major events in US history that have made us question the ability of our hospitals to respond to widespread emergencies and mass casualties: The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Unfortunately, some post-9/11 calls for a review of hospital preparedness may have gone unheard. For instance, early in 2010, years after Katrina, a lawsuit involving a hurricane victim called into question hospital preparedness both in 2005 and today.

Katrina: Tragedy at a Hospital

When Katrina hit Louisiana on August 29, 2005, 73 year old Althea LaCoste was a patient at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital in New Orleans. She was admitted on August 28, 2005 to get treatment for pneumonia. She was on a respirator or ventilator to help her breathe.

Katrina caused massive power failures, including at the hospital, and Althea's respirator stopped working. According to the lawsuit filed by her family, Althea died because the hospital wasn't prepared adequately for the disaster.

Althea was one of 16 patients who died at the hospital during Katrina. There were nearly 200 similar Katrina-related deaths at other hospitals and medical facilities.

The Law on Preparedness

No national legal standards or laws control how prepared hospitals must be to respond to widespread disasters or mass casualties, such as a hurricane or terrorist attack. As the LaCoste case shows, disaster-related lawsuits usually are controlled by the negligence or malpractice laws of the state where the hospital is located.

Negligence Basics

In simple terms, negligence is when someone has a legal duty to do (or not do) something, and you're injured because the person doesn't follow that duty. For example, say you're injured in a car accident because another driver ran a red light. The other driver's failure to stop is negligence.

Malpractice is Similar

Malpractice is essentially the same thing as negligence, but it applies to professionals who don't follow the standards of care or conduct that apply to their professions. Doctorslawyers and accountants are good examples of people who may be liable for malpractice.

A judge ruled that the LaCoste case wasn't a malpractice suit, but rather a negligence suit. This is significant. In some states, including Louisiana, damages in medical malpractice suits are capped at $500,000. There's no such cap in negligence cases. The LaCoste family sued for the hospital and its staff for $11.7 million. The case was settled out-of-court, but the details are confidential.

The Focus is on Preparedness

No one's been sitting idly by waiting for things to fix themselves.

Health Care Professionals Respond

In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the American Hospital Association (AHA) began focusing on hospital disaster readiness (PDF). Although terrorism was the main source of concern, the AHA has since recognized the need for hospitals to be ready for natural disasters and pandemics, such as H1N1.

Also, in 2009, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published guidelines to help hospitals develop standards of care in crisis situations.

The US Government Responds, Too

In 2005, several short months before Katrina, the US Department of Homeland Security announced the National Preparedness Goal (PDF). It's intended to make the US ready for all types of emergencies. In support of the Goal, the US Department of Health and Human Services developed the Hospital Preparedness Program (HHP). Through this program, hospitals may get help, including money and equipment, to make them better prepared to handle wide-spread emergencies.

In 2010, HHP doled out close to $400 million to cities and states across the country to strengthen hospital emergency preparedness. More money is available for 2011 (PDF), too.

In hindsight, it's easy to say that if hospitals like Pendleton Memorial Methodist had heeded the calls to be better prepared, patients like LaCoste and others may not have died. Today, reviews, audits and emergency drills can help determine if a particular hospital is ready for a disaster or large scale emergency. Unfortunately, the true test won't come until one actually hits.

Hopefully by now, we've learned the lessons from 9/11 and Katrina and we can trust that our hospitals won't fail when we need them the most. Perhaps suits like LaCoste's will spur hospitals to check and re-check their emergency preparedness.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Does it matter if my negligence or malpractice lawsuit involves a private or state-owned hospital?
  • My relative died under circumstances similar to Althea LaCoste's. Is it too late to file a lawsuit?
  • If requested by me and other citizens, do our state and local government officials have to conduct a review or investigation of area hospitals?
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