Acute care hospitals and other healthcare facilities play a critical role in the community when hazardous weather conditions occur. Regardless of what is happening outside, a hospital must continue to provide care. Due to the increase in severe weather conditions and other natural disasters in the United States and other parts of the world, hospitals are revisiting their emergency preparedness plans to ensure they have the right supplies to keep patients safe.
Acute care hospitals and other healthcare facilities play a critical role in the community when hazardous weather conditions arrive. Regardless of the treacherous weather happening outside, your facility’s role is to continue providing care to community members who need it, when they need it.
There has been a rise in severe weather conditions and other natural disasters in the United States and around the world in recent years. Hospitals across the nation, particularly in the northern parts of the country, are responding by revisiting their emergency preparedness plans to ensure they have the supplies needed to keep everyone safe.
Unexpected cold weather storms, particularly those that compromise power during winter months, can be incredibly dangerous for patients in sensitive recovery states. Cold weather hazards add an additional layer of difficulty to the emergency preparedness planning process as the risk of losing power increases during severe storm and blizzard conditions or from the wildfires that have plagued drier areas during the season.
Maintaining normothermia is high priority during cold temperature emergencies
Severe winter weather can generate substantial snowfall, strong winds, massive ice build up, and wind chills that dip way down to temperatures well below the point of freezing. In warmer regions, the dry winter season can increase the likelihood of wildfires. These and other dangerous outdoor conditions may stress electrical lines, add pressure to heating systems, and require backup generators to work harder.
In addition to meeting regular maintenance expectations in an attempt to prevent equipment failures at your hospital when extreme conditions descend on your community, it is important to ensure your facility’s emergency preparedness plan includes storing additional patient care supplies. It is exceedingly important to include those that will help your staff keep patients and other people seeking shelter in your facility warm, safe, and comfortable as they wait out the weather with you.
In normal external circumstances, our bodies are able to adjust in order to control internal temperature within a tight range, typically between 97.7–99.5 °F. Icy temperatures, brisk wind, rain, snow, hail, and even sweat can cool skin, pulling the heat away from the body and cooling it. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s heat loss exceeds its natural heat production. If a person’s core body temperature drops, even if only a few degrees, symptoms of hypothermia will begin set in.
The effects of hypothermia reach every system in a person’s body. As temperatures drop and a person becomes colder, mild hypothermia will become established and the individual’s heart rate will rise in attempt to warm the body initially. Simultaneously, the person’s brain will begin experiencing difficulties functioning, leading to feelings of increased anxiety, faulty judgment, and confusion.
The body will then instinctively begin slowing circulation to the face and limbs in an effort to protect the body’s vital organs. As the body’s core temperature continues to drop, the brain will continue to show a decreased level of consciousness, to the point of coma if the body’s core temperature drops low enough. When severe hypothermia is present, it can quickly lead to death.
The symptoms of hypothermia can be perilous, so maintaining normothermia is vital for visitors and staff alike in emergency situations. Experiencing any level of hypothermia is dangerous for those patients who are recovering from surgery or other recent procedures.
Normothermia is critical to preventing infections and other serious complications from developing such as negative cardiovascular effects, respiratory distress, or surgical site bleeding. Additionally, all patients exposed to adverse weather conditions or chilly temperatures, especially those who have experienced some sort of trauma, are at risk of developing hypothermia as it is associated with negative outcomes and higher mortality rates. Furthermore, exposure to even just slightly chilled conditions are likely to become uncomfortable for all individuals sheltered in your facility.
If patients are experiencing hypothermia at any level, it is important to rewarm them immediately. There are multiple methods to rewarm patients including methods related to active external warming, active internal warming and passive external warming.
When electricity is available, active external or internal warming is an option
When the wind chill outside your facility doors is in the negative 30’s and 40 mph wind gusts are rushing toward your windows, it may be difficult to keep all areas in your facility warm, even if your heating equipment is functioning as normal.
To counteract mild hypothermia or for hypothermia prevention, caregivers can use active external warming methods to protect a patient, which involves applying heat directly to a person’s skin. This method only works if one’s circulation is intact to return warmed blood to the core.
Using portable forced air devices, covering your patients with electric or warm water blankets or applying heating pads to their body are all effective for keeping patients warm. It’s important to keep in mind that these methods use electrical components and could place your patients at risk for burns so they should be used with caution.
In some cases, individuals traveling to your facility from other areas of the community may be exposed to the elements. These individuals could begin developing hypothermia before they even reach your hospital. In medium to severe hypothermia cases, internal active warming may be necessary. This category of warming is typically used for patients experiencing severe hypothermia. Methods may include using warm oxygen, flushing patients with warm water or infusing them with warmed fluids. Although these methods may be necessary for some patients, they require electricity which isn’t always available during emergency situations, so hypothermia prevention is key.
If electricity is no longer accessible passive external warming will help prevent hypothermia
Keeping patients warm is a challenge in itself but it becomes tremendously difficult when your facility has lost power. In these circumstances, one effective way to keep patients warm when internal temperatures begin to drop is through passive warming.
Passive warming means to reduce heat loss through insulation. Insulation could be through the use of blankets, sheets, or other materials to create a shield that the patient’s own body heat cannot penetrate. Traditionally, common hospital linens have been used for this purpose, sometimes warmed with a blanket warmer. Sadly for hospital emergency preparedness planners, storing the amount of linen blankets essential to keeping just 50 people warm on site without electricity requires a rather big investment and a large amount of storage space.
Your team may prefer to use heat reflective technology alone or partnered with linen blankets to keep your patients and visitors warm. This space-efficient technology not only prevents the wearer from losing heat, it reflects his or her own endogenous radiant heat back toward his or her body banking it in the body’s core while preventing convective heat loss (also known as wind chill).
Heat reflective technology is a proactive protocol that has been trusted by clinicians worldwide for over 20 years to protect patients from unplanned hypothermia through the use of science. We’ve seen these blankets a lot in the media when reviewing stories about disasters as they sit over the shoulders of survivors, keeping them warm and shielded from the elements while they wait to be transferred to safer situations. The technology’s popularity is likely related to the fact they are effective at keeping the wearer warm, durable, lightweight, inexpensive, and – best of all – they don’t require any electricity.
The impact of winter storms and other natural disasters on your facility may be nearly impossible to predict. Preventing and managing hypothermia in emergency situations patients can be difficult, more so if electricity is no longer accessible. Still, it is imperative to keeping people healthy, safe and comfortable. To prevent the life-threatening complications of hypothermia, be armed with the emergency preparedness supplies to keep everyone in your facility warm.
Joe Przepiorka is the Vice President of Marketing at Encompass Group. He identifies healthcare trends to enhance patient experiences with safe and comfortable products.