Home Original The Long-Term Impact of Hurricanes on Local Hospitals
The Long-Term Impact of Hurricanes on Local Hospitals

The Long-Term Impact of Hurricanes on Local Hospitals


By Dr. Jessica Sapp
Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences, American Public University

Hospitals are an intrinsic part of emergency preparedness and disaster recovery, but they are not immune to damage from natural disasters. Recently, the News Herald of Panama City, Florida, reported that Bay Medical Sacred Heart hospital will lay off almost half of its 1,645 employees as a result of the heavy wind and water damage it sustained from Hurricane Michael in October. The hospital plans to reopen in January at one-fourth of its previous size.

Lack of New Income Impacts Hospital Operations

Everyone expects to receive care when they go to a hospital because of the many in-patient and out-patient services. These services include specialty physicians, lab tests, surgeries and physical therapy. By providing these services to the community, hospitals receive income to maintain operations.

Regardless of the controversy around healthcare, hospitals cannot survive without income or funding streams. When a hospital like Bay Medical Sacred Heart is damaged and cannot provide full services, its income is reduced. As a result, the hospital is unable to cover employees’ salaries and other expenses and layoffs are inevitable.

Complexity of Hospitals Requires Longer Disaster Recovery Period

Hurricane Michael was one of the most devastating storms to hit the Florida panhandle. Unfortunately, the area’s healthcare facilities and hospitals were heavily damaged affecting operations well beyond the typical power outages and patient evacuations.

Rebuilding a hospital is much more complex than rebuilding a house. Healthcare is one of the most regulated industries in the United States, as well it should be. That makes reconstruction more complex. The time it takes to rebuild a medical facility after a natural disaster can greatly affect its financial situation and operational budget.

Related: Eyewitness Report: Hurricane Michael Recovery Efforts

Hospitals have unique technology, operating systems and layout designs. It is very costly to upgrade healthcare facilities to current building codes (such as hurricane zones). In addition, not every general contractor is qualified to build an X-ray room.

Supply and demand is another problem. After a hurricane, damaged buildings create an increased demand for building supplies like wood, roofing shingles, pipes and electrical equipment. There are still homes in Florida awaiting repairs from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017; now we have the additional demand caused by Hurricane Michael. The increased need for contractors and supplies adds to the rebuilding timeline.

Hurricanes Cause Improvements to Healthcare Facilities

Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005, including the Ochsner Health facility, which was a small hospital at the time. In the 10 years following Hurricane Katrina, Ochsner Health grew into the Ochsner Health System, which is now affiliated with 25 hospitals and cares for 400,000 patients in the New Orleans area and for more than one million others across Louisiana.

So, although there are immediate economic effects from Hurricane Michael, there can be many positive long-term benefits to the community such as:

  • Stronger buildings and infrastructure: New construction will comply with the latest building codes. In Florida, buildings near the coast are required to meet increased impact and wind-resistant codes. This will make their infrastructure stronger, which might reduce damage in future storms.
  • Updated medical equipment: We often see improvements to medical equipment, but it can be very costly for a hospital to upgrade to the newest technology. But when a hospital rebuilds after a disaster, outdated or old equipment is replaced by newer models.
  • More efficient work spaces: Lean Six Sigma is a well-known organizational system in manufacturing industries, but it is now being used in healthcare. I worked at a hospital that designed its operating rooms with the same layout and functionality. This created a consistency among the operating rooms that can reduce human error during medical procedures. These principles can be included in rebuilding plans.
  • Improved operations: When you build a hospital, it is important to consider how daily operations and workflow create efficient work spaces. For example, to reduce patient transport time and quicker results in emergency cases, the ER department could be located close to the imaging facility. Many existing hospitals were not designed with these considerations.
  • Stability in future disasters: When a hospital rebuilds after a storm, it will incorporate the latest building codes that increase structural stability, mitigate damage and allow for continued patient services. When a hospital can remain open even after a severe hurricane, its income will stabilize and there will be no need for staff layoffs.

Although it is difficult to recover from a disaster, we are resilient in the time of need. Let’s use these opportunities to improve our community and make it stronger.

If you have been impacted by Hurricane Michael and are looking for new employment opportunities, you can visit the following sites to assist in your job search:

About the Author

Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at APU. She has over 13 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in health policy and management at Georgia Southern University and a M.P.H. in health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in health science education from the University of Florida.